Seize control:

why “No” is the key leadership tool you need


Published on: June 2021

Written by: Laura Fay and Kevin Cuthbert

If you’ve been following along, you know we’ve shared two key mantras for leaders managing through the change of the past 18 months: Put on your oxygen mask first. Focus on your most important relationships.

There is a third silver lining that our senior leader clients have told us they want to bring forward as they begin to see the light at the end of the Zoom tunnel.

Ruthlessly prioritize your time and the time of your team. Call it effectiveness, call it efficiency, call it productivity – it’s all about getting stuff done, but making sure it’s the right stuff. The wild early days of the pandemic forced many leaders to get ultra-focused on the most important things to get them through the crisis. As pressures ease, it has become easier to get distracted and go back to the days of trying to do it all. But now is not the time to return to those bad habits. Now is the time to focus, prioritize, and draw some boundaries.

According to Gallup’s latest State of the American Workplace report, only a third of employees are engaged at work. At the other end, 16% of employees are actively disengaged, and the remaining 51% of employees are not engaged — they’re just there. Even worse? 65 percent of managers – the ones most likely to influence employee engagement – are disengaged. So why does any of that matter? Because engagement is directly related to productivity. From your seat in the C-Suite, this ought to be pretty scary.

The tailwinds of the pandemic, against the backdrop of a slowly rebounding economy and questions about return to work strategies, create a tough environment to try and get the most effectiveness out of your team. So how do you keep fatigued leaders focused and productive while the new normal shakes out?

  1. Get clear about priorities. Pick a small number of the most critical activities that have a strong line of sight to the organization’s strategy. Build clear agreements within your team and with other teams on the top priorities and on who ultimately serves as the decision maker. Repeat these priorities until you are blue in the face so there is no confusion.
  2. Provide air cover: Help clear the way and minimize distractions so your team can focus on the work at hand. Establish a set of criteria or questions you can ask to map new ideas and requests back to the core priorities – if the work doesn’t support the broader agreed-upon themes – it doesn’t happen. Empower your team to say no.
  3. Create white space: It’s impossible to build, modify, or execute on a plan when there is no room for preparation or reflection. Scenario planning and innovative thinking require white space. It’s hard to come up with new ideas or see different angles when you’re under fire, feeling the pressure. Your leaders need quiet time and reflection to settle their brains and open up to other possibilities.

Get clear about priorities

We are working with a C-suite team right now that has been plagued by what you might call “squirrel chasing.” For about a year, they have repeated a cycle of spending a great deal of time building strategies and plans, only to change them in the days and weeks after finalizing those plans. Deeper down in the organization, this “swirl” is causing less than optimal execution and the loss of key talent.

The antidote is simple. It starts with creating a team purpose and set of operating principles that define how the team will work together. Commit to agreements about how decisions will get made, how work will get discussed, what expectations exist for interpersonal dynamics. If you’re worrying about the ability of the team to have candor, to collaborate effectively, or drive toward a common goal – it’s really difficult to get aligned on a set of priorities. We’ve all been part of teams where those agreements aren’t explicitly laid out and best case scenario, it leads to incorrect assumptions and process breakdowns. Worst case scenario, it leads to dysfunctional team dynamics that derail the work altogether. Once you have this alignment, turn your attention to a short list of business priorities – and stick to it.

Consider using the Eisenhower Matrix if your leaders are struggling to prioritize or fall subject to squirrel chasing. Gather your team around a virtual whiteboard and follow this process:

  • Step 1: List the major activities that need to be completed by your team
  • Step 2: Score these on importance or impact (from 0 for no importance to 10 for maximum importance) and on urgency and time sensitivity (0 to 10)
  • Step 3: Plot the activities on the matrix, based on your scores:
    • High Importance/Low Urgency (Decide)
    • High Importance/High Urgency (Do!)
    • Low Importance/Low Urgency (Delete)
    • Low Importance/High Urgency (Delegate)
  • Step 4: Prioritize appropriately and encourage your leaders to delegate or eliminate low-importance activities. If they forget, get out the matrix and remind them.

Provide air cover

Once you have a clear sense of strategic priorities and the team is aligned on the go-forward plan, what could go wrong? A ton.

There’s any number of roadblocks that could derail your team’s productivity – time, money, people, emotions – for starters.

If your team is worried about missteps or failing, if they don’t have the resources they need to execute, if they have to expend time and energy justifying the strategy to stakeholders – well, they aren’t going to get it done, at least not with a sense of efficiency and productivity. Enter YOU. The idea of air cover is to offer your team some level of protection or advocacy that allows them to stay heads down, take necessary risks, say no to others, and occasionally – test and fail in order to succeed. So what does that look like?

  • Remember you’re not the pilot. You’re not there to intercede and tell them how to do it differently. You’re there to knock down barriers that might get in their way. Air cover is support, not control.
  • Give them a clear runway. Eliminate other projects on their plate. Cut back on meetings you’ve asked them to attend. Explain to other team members why and how they are involved. Clearly convey your support of and trust in your leaders. Reduce the queries that come their way by anticipating and preempting them. And support them when they say no to others in the organization.
  • Know enough to be helpful. Don’t get into the weeds or micromanage the project in case you need to step in. Rather, set up a system in which updates can be shared and red flags can be raised early enough for you to react and give guidance.
  • Get clear on the team’s expectations of you. When they do raise that red flag, make sure you understand what kind of air cover they need. Should you run interference with senior stakeholders? Do you need to help solicit additional funding or resources? Or do you just need to be aware what the potential outcomes can be so you can help defend?

Create white space

At the beginning of the pandemic, we jumped into the virtual environment with gusto, socializing and meeting online in an effort to maintain a sense of connection and productivity. That has largely proved to be unsustainable and in many cases has created a counterproductive schedule that allows for very little reflection, planning, and prep time. And though it may feel counterintuitive, if we don’t slow down and reflect, we really can’t move forward.

How do you help your leaders with this?

  • Model it: We can hardly tell our teams about the importance of white space if we’re running from one thing to the next. Rather than have standing meetings, set up set “office hours” to check in with team members. Shift weekly 1:1s to biweekly. Use Microsoft’s ‘Focus Plan’ option to hold empty slots in your calendar. In other words, demonstrate the importance of rebalancing and then give your leaders permission to do the same.
  • Shorten your meetings: No one needs 60-minute meetings. What we all need is efficient, well-run, intentional meetings which can often happen in a fraction of an hour. Ask your team to create meeting agendas and share materials in advance. Use the time to discuss key points in an open dialogue rather than waste it in “presentation” mode. You’ll save some time on the back end.
  • Schedule non-negotiable time: White space is critical for reflecting and innovating – but it’s also critical for planning ahead. We always recommend that our clients block two hours on Friday afternoons to look at their meetings for the coming week. Which ones likely present triggers? Might include tough conversations? Have complex topics to address? Have multiple people from the same team already attending? Encourage your team to decide which meetings they really need to attend, and how they need to prepare for them.
  • Change up your routine: How much of our grind is tied to a daily routine of log in, check emails, respond to emails, and so on? Perhaps we need to shake it up. Try starting with reflection time (ignore the inbox!) rather than trying to do it at the end of the day when you’re tired. Better yet, change your environment. Relocate to a different spot that might add inspiration – an outdoor coffee shop, a park bench, even a different room in your house!

We know we’re living in different times even since we started this blog series six months ago. We’ve talked about the importance of maintaining balance and leveraging connections to manage through the constant change. What we underestimated is just how much that “change” continues to be a part of the permanent landscape. But we also know that as senior executives, you have to keep driving your business forward – asking your teams to step up, be productive, drive for results.

And it’s possible to do both. Lead with empathy. Help draw work-life boundaries. Encourage relationship building. Break down barriers. Set clear goals.

In other words, use the silver linings we’ve gleaned from the past 18 months to define a completely new leadership model that works for you, your team, and your business. Embrace the new normal – it’s here to stay.

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