Dealing with Multiple Priorities

Dwight D. Eisenhower

“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower

Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed and even discouraged when despite your best effort you see that your to-do list just keeps getting longer and longer?
You just can’t win and you are not quite sure what to do. E-mails are pouring in and deadlines are approaching fast and just when you think you might after all be able to get a grip on the situation, unless a crisis occur, well, a crisis occur. At least what is presented to you as a crisis. The question though is whether everything in your list is equally urgent and equally important. Probably not!

Being able to distinguish what is urgent and what is important is the first and most crucial step to be able to deal with multiple and sometimes conflicting priorities.

You work with a team and you have a number of available hours in a day and days in a week. Tasks can be delegated or planned accordingly and things will get done at the right time and by the right person without you running around like a headless chicken.

Work smart, don’t work hard!

Trying to do everything at the same time, working extra hours, taking on all kinds of tasks indistinctly, indicates that you are working hard. It might also mean that at the end of the day you have probably done a lot and extinguished a lot of fires but you have experienced very little sense of accomplishment.

Dealing with each situation in the proper manner instead is a way to work smart. You will get more tasks completed, hit more deadlines, deliver better quality and feel way less stressed than you did.

How do you do that? Like I mentioned, the key is in distinguishing between important items and urgent items.
Some of the things you need to deal with may be very urgent but not very important and consequently there may be items that are very important but not urgent.

Define Urgent, Define Important

In order to define whether something is urgent you just have to look at the deadline. If you have a deadline within the next 30 minutes you are probably looking at something urgent. Or, is it? Unless we are talking about a legal or a medical deadline for instance, you can always try to negotiate the actual deadline. The easiest way to do this is by asking the requester:”what is the latest you will need this by?” or “is it a possibility to postpone this by [x amount of time]?”

Often you will be able to negotiate a deadline and in that case you just bought yourself some time.

If that is not the case then your non-negotiable 30 minutes deadline definitely falls in the urgent items.

Now, how do you define if something is important or not?

The importance of an item you need to deal with it is not determined by the clock but by the purpose it serves and the value it has. In a typical office environment, important items are for instance those in line with strategic objectives and priorities. If a deliverable is necessary to enable the company strategy then that is an important item. If more items appear to be important and you can’t decide which is more important than the other then you can discuss this with your manager or with your team according to the situation. ideally you would be looking at the benefit this important item can bring or at the consequences of not completing this task.

The Eisenhower Decision Matrix

Once you have a clear idea of which urgent items you are dealing with and which important items and how urgent and important these are, you can then use a simple matrix to decide what to do.

The two axis matrix here below is known as an “Eisenhower Box” or “Eisenhower Decision Matrix”. Items are placed in according quadrants that will indicate how to handle tasks.

The Eisenhower Matrix

Important and urgent items are dealt with personally and immediately.
Important but not urgent items are dealt with personally.
Urgent but not important items are delegated.
Items that are neither urgent nor important can either wait or can be dropped.

Being able to delegate is a necessary part of a manager’s skill set. In future posts I will tell how to delegate the right tasks to the right people.

In the meantime, as simple and as intuitive as this matrix is, you now have a tool to help you prioritize and deal with multiple conflicting priorities effectively.

Suggested reading:

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Paperback)

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The Importance of Trust

In God We Trust

In Trust We Trust

There is only one thing I am afraid of when talking about ‘trust’: that I am not capable of transmitting how important, how essential, trust actually is.
Trust in a relationship is everything. Partners that don’t trust each other will end up not being partners anymore. Trust is important in every single aspect of our life, including the professional dimension.

In an office where there is no trust people will have hidden agendas and a considerable amount of time and effort will be spent checking on each other ultimately at the expenses of a common goal.

Mistrust costs time, energy and money and accomplishes very little. People working in an environment where there is no trust will be more concerned about keeping their job than trying to fulfill their potential. Disengagement is a natural consequence of a lack of trust. Employees will be in the office just because they have to but wished they were anywhere else but in the office. These employees will eventually leave and so will all other employees that experience a lack of trust.

If an employee is not performing well but you trust that the performance can be raised to a successful level then you can focus on getting things back on track. Coaching can occur, maybe even tough conversations but trusting that things will be fine will ensure that things will be fine.
If on the other hand you have already lost all trust then there is no point in even trying.

When there is no trust structures to control are built, barriers are erected and in an office immense overheads like coercion, inspection and supervision that are not part of the original work are created. The lower the level of trust, the lower the speed at which things happen and the higher the costs.

So, how do you build trust?

In the words of Ernest Hemingway “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

The best way for you to be trusted is to build credibility. Credibility is built when you are open about your intent, your aim, and when you are actions are in line with it. You therefore act with integrity. This is part of your character.

At the same time though it is also important that you have what it takes, that you have the right capabilities and your personal track record shows that you deliver results. These factors show your competence.

Intent, Integrity, Capability and Results represent the  4 cores of credibility and credibility is essential in order to be trusted.

Saying what you set out to do and taking action is great but you must possess the right skills and you must be able to show a proven track record in order to be trusted.

Let me illustrate this with a story you might be familiar with. The fresco you see here below is called ‘Ecce Homo’ (Behold the Man) and was painted circa 1930 by the Spanish painter Elías García Martínez in the Sanctuary of Mercy church in Borja, Spain.

Ecce Homo by Elías García Martínez

Ecce Homo by Elías García Martínez

Because of the humidity in the church, over the years the fresco seriously deteriorated and in 2012 an elderly parishioner in her 80s, Cecilia Giménez, decided to restore it. Unfortunately, Cecilia did not have any special education or relevant background, so despite her best effort this is the actual result of her failed restoration attempt:

Ecce Monkey by Cecilia Giménez

Ecce Monkey by Cecilia Giménez


When the news of the disfigured painting spread around the globe, Cecilia declared: “The priest knew it. I was painting in broad daylight. I’ve never tried to do anything hidden.”

According to Cecilia she was trusted by the priest to restore the fresco. She also certainly declared her intent and acted with integrity, however she did not quite have the capability to take on the task and the result … well, the result is what people now call ‘Ecce Monkey’.

Eventually, the interest from tourists was high. The church began charging to see the fresco and €50,000 for a local charity were raised. Did Cecilia build credibility as a reliable art restorer tough? Will she be trusted to do the job next time?

I have my thoughts. What are yours?

Suggested reading on the importance of trust:

The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything (Paperback)

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Managing Former Peers

image courtesy of Paweł Kadysz
Managing former peers can be a tough situation for any manager. If this is also your first managerial experience then it is probably going to be even tougher. There may be skepticism about your ability to lead because you have no track record to show as a manager and for the same reason you might also feel a little insecure and intimated by the task ahead of you. On top of that you might now be managing people who have applied for that same job and are now disappointed or even bitter about it, which adds another layer of complexity to the situation.

So, how to deal with all this?

Individual meetings to personalize the message

Because you are now managing your peers you are already familiar with the company, the product offered or the services provided and what the team does. So, because you don’t have to worry about learning all that, your primary focus at the beginning can be on establishing new and solid dynamics with your team.

In your initial 1 on 1 conversations with the different members of the team, clarify expectations and encourage them to let you know what they feel they need support with and what their aspirations for the future are.

If you know that some of the members of your team have also applied for the same role as you did, then you can safely assume that they will be disappointed. While you can only hope that everyone takes ‘bad news’ graciously, reality is that some of the disappointed competitors might show some resistance, at least in the beginning. The initial conversation may even be unpleasant, so let them know that you do understand their disappointment, that you value them as an important part of the team and that you will support them and enable them to succeed.

A team meeting to discuss the purpose of the team and your vision

This can occur in the office or off-site. An off-site location will ensure fewer distractions and more focus as well as a bonding opportunity if you plan an activity at the end of the day.

In this meeting it is important to discuss and get consensus on the purpose of team, to share your vision for the future and clarify how you expect the team to operate. For instance if you want people to talk to each other instead of sending e-mails to the person sitting next to them or if you value openness, this is a good time to let the team know.

The purpose of the team should hopefully be clear already, however if still unclear for some this is a great opportunity to redefine and align everyone in the team towards common objectives.

In sharing your vision for the future you might not necessarily want to start a revolution in your first week as a manager but focus on and highlight those aspects you want to keep and which new aspects you would like to introduce.

Recurring meetings to stay aligned and monitor progress towards goals

Agree on a meeting cadence and set-up recurring meetings. What are the different situations that require you to come together as a team? How often and when will you meet and what is the objective of each recurring meeting?

A Business Plan review can occur on a quarterly basis, while operational or project updates might need to be reviewed as a team and addressed weekly. Depending on the situation you can even decide to have a morning huddle of a few minutes to discuss priorities and assign tasks for the day. The important thing is that a meeting serves the right purpose and that the right business decisions can be made.

Have therefore clear in your mind what you want to get out of the different meetings and be prepared to clearly articulate why it is important to have these meetings.

Ask for and provide feedback

Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. You are new and you are not expected to have all the answers but you can learn a lot if you ask for and listen to honest feedback on a regular basis.

If you are true about getting honest feedback then you can offer your team to provide feedback about you to your manager. Your manager will then channel the feedback back to you anonymously.

Equally important to receiving feedback is giving feedback to your team. Remember, you have been selected as the best candidate for this role and providing feedback is definitely part of your role as a manager. It is important that you timely address situations that could otherwise become bigger issues and in doing so you also allow your team to grow.

Feedback can be given in individual dedicated conversations or for instance at the end of a presentation that one of your team members gave. The important thing is to give feedback, allow the other person to react and agree on concrete next steps.

Managing former peers is not an easy task for anyone but if you follow these steps you are setting yourself and your team up for success.