Executive Coaching

How to manage your boss when everything is high priority

When I told the following story about one of my bosses to a client recently, they said ‘That boss sounds a lot like me’.

This boss did not set priorities because everything was high priority. Not his fault, just the culture of the company. He would take each task or project that he was asked to handle and delegate it to me, usually with added momentum. Each new thing was more urgent than the last one and it all had to be done now.

This meant that any plans I made were often disrupted by his return from meetings. It almost made no sense to plan and I even considered trying to just work faster and faster. However it was deeply unsatisfying, often stressful and risked burnout.

One day I went to my doctor complaining about feeling dizzy during the night when I woke up to use the loo. He told me I was hyperventilating in my sleep as a result of stress. Somehow we got onto the subject of self-esteem and he gave me some great advice. He said that we feel most good about ourselves when we are fit and dynamic.

I knew what fit meant. But I pondered the word ‘dynamic’. I decided that, for me, it meant getting half a dozen projects off the ground over the next year – so I made this my priority. I called in my team and asked them to tell me which projects they wanted to implement. Then we did a financial assessment of each to see which would generate the most profit for the investment.

From that we picked the top 6. Those became my priorities. Now came the delicate question of how to deal with my boss. He could sabotage my efforts in an instant, if I let him. In one of those moments of clarity that seem to come from nowhere, I realised that since he could not manage me, I had to manage him.

So I asked him for a meeting and explained the justification for the 6 projects and the potential value of each. I took him through the assumptions and likely financial returns from each. He changed a few but nothing material. Then I took him through the other 180 things on my To Do List.

Perhaps predictably, he agreed that they all belonged on my list. As I stood up, I told him that the 6 would definitely get done but there may be casualties among the 180. Then I walked out, without waiting for an answer, and he watched me in disconcerted silence.

There was nothing he could say. I had made a strong case for the 6 projects and justified why they were worth more than the others and had demonstrated the soundness of my approach in picking priorities. And he had agreed to my logic and approach.

I’d like to say that he changed after that, but he didn’t. He still delegated with added momentum and expected things instantly. However I changed. I would listen to his latest project and told him, politely, that I would add it to the list. Then I would decide if this was more important or urgent than the other things I was working on and either delay it or do it. I never needed to say no directly, more often it would be the case that I just had not got round to it yet.

This meant that I had a clear idea of what was important to me and I followed through. And if ever I was anxious that something from my list of 180 might come to bite me, I could always comfort myself with the satisfaction of what I was doing. I changed one or two other things in how I worked but at year-end, the bottom line was that I completed all 6 projects and they added an extra £5 million profit to my division. Those 6 were worth more than all the 180 added together. No one but me said they were urgent or important. Twenty years later, they still make me feel good.


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