Align Your Leadership Spine

leadership alignmentRemember the 55-38-7 communication rule? Even though its specifics have been disputed, there is truth to the idea that the messages you send are muddled when your words don’t match your behaviors. The same confusion can occur between your company’s strategy, initiatives, and daily work. To avoid confusion, align this leadership “spine” by adjusting your intention, attention, and actions. When you do, strategy and initiatives inform daily work and flow together. When you align these leadership activities, you bolster your capacity to lead. Here’s how:

Clarify Your Intentions

Intentions set the course for what you want. Your intentions seem obvious to you, but they aren’t necessarily obvious to everyone else. Without the benefit of knowing exactly what is in YOUR head, others interpret your messages based on what’s in THEIR heads. For example, from your perspective, if you’re hesitant to move forward on something, you might be concerned about identified risks. However, others might interpret your slow decision-making as a lack of know-how or of confidence or interest in moving forward with an initiative.

Your intentions are unclear, when:
1) your decision and resulting action plans are disconnected from your company’s vision, mission, values, and strategy and/or
2) you haven’t communicated your decision and proposed action plan in a way that explicitly ties them to the company’s broader strategy.

To clarify your intentions, create a clear line of connection between company vision, mission, values, and strategic priorities/goals by highlighting the decisions you made and actions taken. Communicate these connection to direct reports and others before you start moving your decisions forward.

Move From Distraction to Focused Attention

With clear intentions, your employees will follow your lead regarding where to put THEIR focus. Thus, you must limit distractions and model an ability to focus your attention on the things that will help your company stay the course.

To determine your level of distraction versus focus, look at how much time and effort you give to people and tasks related to what you say are the company’s most important priorities. The 80/20 rule serves as a general guideline. That is, strive to spend approximately 20% of your weekly working time performing tasks that are appropriate to your role and that relate to your team or company’s important initiatives.

Check yourself by looking back at how you’ve been using your time over the past couple of weeks. If you’ve been distracted from the company’s most important priorities, look at what’s getting in your way (e.g., allowing unnecessary interruptions, unclear work processes for direct reports that create dependency on you, failing to take time to analyze data or to plan next steps, etc.).

Take Deliberate Action

With clear intentions and focused attention on important priorities, you’re ready to “walk the talk” and to take action, appropriate for your role, to move things forward. You could . . .

  • spend time following up with direct reports on progress in their respective roles,
  • communicate with a broader group of employees about what’s happening and how progress is being made,
  • spend time fostering internal and external relationships that will further those initiatives, and/or
  • ensure direct reports develop new competencies that support the initiatives.

The bottom line is to do the tasks and strengthen the relationships that will further the original intention of the strategic and tactical plans.

It seems so simple to make sure your words and actions are reflecting company priorities. Yet, if you don’t consciously maintain that aligned focus each day, you can easily become reactive and find yourself distracted by events that aren’t worth your time and attention. In the end, you will see how powerful it is to align the leadership “vertebrae” of intention, attention, and action.


WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR NEWSLETTER, BLOG OR WEBSITE? You can, as long as you include this information with it: Beth Strathman works with corporate leaders to increase employee engagement and retention by aligning strategy and tactics during rapid growth and change. Learn more about her company Firebrand Consulting LLC at:

5 Beliefs That Are Wasting Your Time

jugglingFeel like you don’t have time to get around to important tasks? You might be frustrated that you are extremely busy but aren’t accomplishing the important stuff that would move your strategy forward. Underneath, you may be angry or resentful that you have to do it all. What if you are wasting your own time because of a few of your own subconscious beliefs? These five beliefs are counter to time mastery and could be causing you to waste your time:

1. “No one else will do it right.”

Have you ever found yourself working on a project or task that you could have delegated or assigned to someone else because you didn’t have faith that others would do it correctly? You are the victim of a perfectionistic belief that only you know how to do things to high standards. That may or may not be true, but does everything need to be done perfectly?

When assigning a task to a direct report, make sure you describe the quality standards required. To keep things on track, schedule follow-up meetings to check in and encourage your employees to check back with you if there are questions about how well something needs to be done.

2. “I can’t count on anyone else to get it done.”

Do you find yourself working on something that a direct report should be doing because you don’t trust them to get it done? Similar to perfectionism, you might have a trust issue around the timeliness of completion. In addition to deadlines and check-in points along the way, counter this belief by working with your employee to prioritize the work. This may include identifying other tasks that can be postponed, re-assigned, or dropped altogether. This way, you can keep things on schedule for timely completion without doing it yourself.

3. “I’ll pick up the slack because my employees are already overworked.”

It’s not a bad thing to assist your team with task work once in a while. However, you know it’s a problem if you believe you need to rescue them often. Also, you may feel resentful that you are picking up slack even though you chose to do it for them. When you frequently take on the work of others, you often bury yourself with work that is not of strategic value for your own role.

Before being tempted to ride to your employees’ rescue, help direct report prioritize their tasks. Often, they will be able to see where they are spending too much of their time on tasks and projects that are not that important at the moment in favor of those that are more pressing and strategic.

4. “I need to be available to everyone 100% of the time.”

When you put yourself at the mercy of the needs and timetables of others, others will interrupt your attention and focus frequently. You might “need to be needed” or “need to be liked”. It’s not selfish to schedule some uninterrupted time to work on your own tasks. It’s akin to being in a meeting when you wouldn’t expect others to interrupt you for routine questions.

To counter this belief, train your staff that a closed door means “I can’t talk to you now.” Also, build some predictable “open door” time into your schedule, when they are welcome to pop in. Finally, train them to save non-urgent questions for regularly scheduled meetings, such as weekly one-on-ones or weekly team meetings.

5. “It’s easier to do it myself.”

Yes. You can do many tasks faster than your employees because of your experience and knowledge. However, when you do this, you deprive employees of the experience. You also deprive them of the lessons they could learn from making a few mistakes along the way. Either you’re showing off or you are falling victim to a notion of false expediency.

Making time to delegate the task with clear expectations and a reasonable timeline will save you time in the long run as you build up employees’ independence and competence. Over time, you’ll be able to delegate more and more to them, saving you more time in the long run.

As a leader, your main job is to facilitate the work of others based on strategic priority. Your job is not to mire yourself down in the task work of others. When you catch yourself with these beliefs, you’ll find that they are really about you wanting to show that you can produce the work like a sole contributor. Great. But that’s not your job anymore. Time to pass on your know-how to your direct reports and free up your time to lead.


WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR NEWSLETTER, BLOG OR WEBSITE? You can, as long as you include this information with it: Beth Strathman works with business leaders who want to increase productivity and retention by shifting their focus from daily tactical work to the strategic work required to move their companies forward. Learn more about her company Firebrand Consulting LLC at:

The Hidden Meanings Behind Those Pesky Interruptions by Employees

“Hey, Boss. Do you have a minute?” How many times a week do you hear that? It can be frustrating to hear those words when you

interruptionswere finally getting some momentum on your own projects. What can you do to maximize your own time at work by minimizing interruptions by your direct reports? First, you need to understand the hidden meanings behind them.

Hidden Meaning 1: “Should I even start this?”

Employees will interrupt you to get clarification about what you really expect them to do. This occurs when employees are unclear about your expectations or when you have a habit of jumping in to do their work (aka “micromanaging”). To counter this, get clear about how your time is best spent and which tasks and meetings could be delegated to direct reports. Also, clarify your expectations by defining the scope of work you assign them, along with deadlines and check-in points.

Hidden Meaning 2: “I’m not touching this with a 10-ft. pole.”

When things “blow up”, employees will interrupt you to solve the problem they see as “above their pay grades”. Often, you can avoid these types of “fires”. Minimize this type of interruption by exploring “why” things went sideways to begin with by using The 5 Whys technique. Once you know the root cause of the “fire”, you can put things in place to avoid these types of events and the interruptions that result.

Hidden Meaning 3: “This isn’t working the way it should.”

When processes aren’t working consistently to produce the expected results, you’re likely to get an unannounced knock at your door with a question about how to do something. Decrease interruptions due to process questions by spending time up front to (1) clarify ownership of processes, (2) automate what you can, and (3) fix the root causes of backlogs, poor hand-offs, and errors.

Hidden Meaning 4: “When are you gonna be around to discuss this?”

Your employees will interrupt you haphazardly if they are uncertain of your availability for questions and consultations. It pays to create predictable and consistent opportunities for them to give and receive information they need to do their jobs. To do this, ensure you have scheduled, timely meetings with direct reports – in groups or individually — for reporting back, checking up, and checking in. This allows you to stay abreast of what’s going on and encourages employees to save their updates for your next scheduled meeting.

Daily huddles and meetings on a weekly, monthly, and quarterly basis can cover the strategic and tactical information that needs to be shared. Additionally, you can schedule a couple hours throughout the week where your door is open for employees to talk with you for up to 15 minutes about the inevitable “things that come up”.

Instead of getting annoyed at interruptions, take the time to assess the reasons for the interruptions. Then, create the clarifications, processes, and meetings that give your direct reports the access to you that is warranted and productive.


WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR NEWSLETTER, BLOG OR WEBSITE? You can, as long as you include this information with it: Beth Strathman works with business leaders who want to increase productivity and retention by shifting their focus from daily tactical work to the strategic work required to move their companies forward. Learn more about her company Firebrand Consulting LLC at:

2 Decisions That Will Revolutionize Your Productivity

personal productivity, time management

How’s your personal productivity? Do you keep papers, desktop files, and emails from time immemorial because you are afraid you’ll need them “someday”?

You won’t.

Do you claim the 1000+ emails lurking in your inbox are easier to retrieve that way?

They aren’t.

Stop making excuses for why you don’t have a more efficient and effective way to handle paperwork and information flow. You can make two decisions that will revolutionize your personal productivity.

Decision #1: Decide What’s Important

For better personal productivity, determine what’s important. Look at your current company and department goals as well as routine tasks and activities required of your role. These the main “buckets” or categories for the stuff flowing through your office. Use these categories to create physical folders for hard copies, computer folders for electronic documents, and possibly email folders for incoming messages.

For example, you may need physical and electronic folders for current projects (“Project XYZ”), meetings (“Weekly Operations Meeting” or “Quarterly Off-Site”), committees (“Safety Committee”), and individual folders for each of your direct reports to store routine or important papers, e-documents, and email messages.

Decision #2: Decide Each Item’s Fate

Next, better personal productivity means you must decide how you will appropriately dispense with each item coming across your desk. This requires the discipline of allowing information to collect in your inboxes without getting distracted by them being dropped in a physical inbox or by an electronic alert that appears on your screen each time a new email arrives. It also requires the discipline of taking time up to two times a day to go through your inboxes  — top to bottom — to handle what’s there.

After you assess each item in your inboxes, the dispensation of it might require you to: do something with it (e.g., make a quick phone call, put it on a meeting agenda, sign it and forward it on, etc.), appropriately re-route it to someone else, schedule it for a later time or date, or discard/delete it as unimportant or not relevant.

Other tips for deciding:

  • Let email rules decide for you. Set up email rules for automatic handling of incoming email. (In a corporate setting, I really liked having a “CC” rule that automatically routed email I was merely CC’d on to a special folder.)
  • Limit the time you spend looking at the stuff coming your way by checking your inboxes no more than twice per day. (Better yet, train an administrative assistant – if you have one – to screen your inflow, so you see only what is truly important.)
  • Don’t worry about discarding or deleting most things — if it’s that important to someone else, they will follow up with you about it, and can usually send you another copy if needed.

Once you decide what’s important and decide how to dispense with each item as part of a regular routine, you will feel more on top of things and will have revolutionized your own productivity.

You can, as long as you include this information with it:
Beth Strathman works with executives who are willing and courageous enough to challenge business as usual. Learn more about her company Firebrand Consulting LLC at:


How to Protect and Maximize Your Time

What is your most precious asset as an executive?

Some say money and investments. Others believe their professional relationships and networks top the list. Still others put personal health, vitality, and energy as number one.

However, there is one asset that is not renewable and that makes it more precious than any other:  Your time. Every second you use up is a second you cannot get back.

While money, relationships, and health are valuable and even precious, they are all renewable to some extent. For instance, you can earn back lost money and can find new opportunities and investments to replace others that went south. You can renew relationships by repairing strained ones and by meeting new people to bolster your network. Additionally, you can make healthy choices regarding diet and exercise and can manage stress to enhance or maintain your health, vitality, and energy.

You know time is precious. Yet, at work, you act as though you have all the time in the world. You insert yourself in situations that are more suitable for or best left to others. You waste time doing things that are not essential to further your career or to achieve your company’s strategic priorities. You spend time handling tasks that are not the most important things for your particular leadership role.

The results? You feel overwhelmed. You lose focus. You fail to move the important or high-impact items forward. Consequently, your other assets suffer as well. The stress of too much to do causes a corresponding loss of energy and vitality. You do not relate as well with others because you are distracted and cannot give your full attention. Ultimately, you are apt to make poor decisions that cost money.

Time is indeed your most precious asset. To protect it, treat it as respectfully as you would your money, relationships, and health by doing the following:

  1. Measure how you use it. You routinely use data when analyzing the performance of your company, your employees, and yourself.  In the same way, gather data to measure how strategically you spend your time. Two or three weeks’ worth of data is usually enough to get an idea of the types of activities you pay attention to. Go longer to get a fuller picture. You may be surprised at what you think you spend time on versus what you do in practice.
  2. Analyze your decisions regarding how you use it. Based on your company’s strategic priorities, are you spending time on role-related tasks that move those priorities forward? Chances are you could create better alignment.
  3. Make more strategic choices going forward. Adjust the use of your time to reflect the things that are most important for your life, your role, your career, your company at present. This might mean you decide to delegate tasks to an administrative assistant or other direct report. It might mean you intentionally schedule appointments with yourself in your calendar to define and protect the time necessary to attend to priorities that are important for you.
  4. Do what it takes to set boundaries to execute those choices. Some of the biggest time wasters are interruptions, “emergencies” (usually not yours), poorly run or otherwise unproductive meetings, poor work processes, and hours spent perfecting your work product, such as memos or other reports that don’t need to be perfect.  Also set boundaries by signaling your unavailability when you need time to concentrate by shutting your door or by using your administrative assistant as a gatekeeper.

In the case of time, sunk costs are truly sunk forever. For more impact, maximize the time you spend at work. You will be surprised at how your personal productivity increases.

WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR NEWSLETTER, BLOG OR WEBSITE? You can, as long as you include this information with it: Beth Strathman works with women in leadership who want to have more positive impact within their organizations, by gaining greater composure, focus, and influence with their teams. Learn more at:

Working Your Organization System

Here’s how to work through your entire organization system to keep it up-to-date.

1.       Each day, take time to prioritize what you need to do that day.  Spend some time at the beginning of the day (or at the end of the day for tomorrow), looking at what has come up on your calendar or Next Actions list to determine what absolutely needs to be done.  Schedule time on your calendar to do things that will take you 30 minutes or more.  This will help you plan what you can get done and when.

In general, your calendar and your Next Actions list will drive what needs to be done on any given day.  Your priorities will most likely change during the day, but if you plan it out you know what to shoot for, and you’ll have a better chance of getting the main things done.

Don’t forget to check your tickler file if you’re keeping that separate from your calendar.

2.       As items enter your system through your email, your physical inbox, Next Actions list or another capture device, determine what the item is and whether something must be done with it.  If nothing needs to be done with the item, then:

  • Trash it.  Junk mail comes to mind for this category along with notices of events you don’t have an interest in attending, or email that you were only CC’d on and don’t have an interest in;
  • File it away for reference in your topical file in case you ever need it.  Maybe someone sent you an article on “employee performance”.  You don’t need it for anything now, but maybe you will in the future; or
  • Let it simmer.  You’re at dinner with friends who describe their latest trip to Antarctica.  Now you think you might want to go someday.  Put it on a Someday/Maybe list where it will stay until you decide to go or until you decide you’re no longer interested.

If something does need to be done with the item, then:

  •  Do it.  If you’re the person who needs to do it, and it will take you 2 minutes or less to do it, do it as soon as it comes up in your email or physical inbox;
  • Delegate it.  If the item is better handled by someone else, delegate it to him/her.  For example, if you have an administrative assistant, s/he can make those mailing labels for the alumni gathering.  You don’t have to.  When you delegate something, make sure you’re clear with who will do it and when it needs to be done.  Make note on a Waiting On list, so you can follow up if needed when you review that list; or
  • Defer it.  If you’re the person who must take action with the item, and it will take longer than 2 minutes to do it, then defer it by putting it on your calendar for the date and/or time that you need to do it.  Maybe it goes on your Agenda for a particular person or meeting, or maybe it should go in your tickler file for a later date.

3.      Review your lists at least once a week.  Check on your . . .

  • Waiting On list for things you’ve delegated to someone else.  Do you need to follow up to find out how things are going?
  • Next Actions list for the next steps to take on various projects.  Is there something you can do in the coming week(s) to move a project forward?
  • Someday/Maybe list to see if you’re ready to do an item from this list . . . or maybe you’ve decided to cross things off this list because you’re no longer interested.
  • Agendas to make sure you are keeping track of items for meeting agendas or to bring up the next time you see a particular person.

Ultimately, you should have the least number of lists to keep you organized.  The goal is not to have a complex system but to have the simplest system that works for you.  If you find yourself not working your organization system from time to time, don’t worry.  It’s easy to get back into it.  And you know that you feel better and more in control of your work when you keep your system updated.  For more tips on self-organization, I recommend the book, Getting Things Done by David Allen.

Self-Organization: Capturing Items and Managing Projects

In an earlier blog entry, I talked about the beginnings of getting organized, including organizing your files, creating a tickler file, and processing through everything in your inboxes every day.  Now, let’s look at capturing and managing all projects you have on your plate.  Remember:  the idea is to get things out of your head, through your inboxes (physical and/or email) and into your organization system, so they can be handled timely and by the right people.

1. Have a capture tool with you always for work and personal items.  A capture tool?  That’s just a fancy way of saying that you need to be able to record every thought about something that needs to be done when it occurs to you.  You probably already have a grocery list on your refrigerator – that’s a capture tool.  As soon as you notice you’re out of milk, you put it on the grocery list, so the next time you’re at the grocery story, you don’t forget to pick up milk.  Have you ever gone to the store thinking you’ll just remember all 6 items you need, but once you get to the store, you can only remember 5?  Yep.  Should have used a list (a capture tool).

Your capture tool can be a small note pad and pen, the electronic memo or task function on your PDA or cell phone, or a voice recorder.  Whatever works for you and is portable.  So, when you get home from work and remember that you need to call Joe Schmoe tomorrow about the Smith account, you can write it down on your note pad, type it into your PDA or cell phone task list, or record the reminder on a voice recorder.  (Only one method required – not all three.)  The idea is that if you “capture” the thought, you won’t fret all evening or lose sleep trying not to forget to make the important phone call the next day.  Capture it and forget it until you’re where you can deal with the item.  And don’t worry about keeping personal and business items separate.  Capture everything together.  You might need to pick up a birthday card for Aunt Martha during your lunch hour, so get it down somewhere.  The timing of when you can complete personal projects and business projects overlap much of the time because business hours needed for information or service for your personal projects are the same business hours you’re at work.

2. Create a Projects List that includes both personal and work items.  A project is anything that takes more than 1 step to do.  For example, “Clean the house on Saturday” could involve these steps: (1) check for needed cleaning supplies, (2) vacuum the carpet, (3) dust the furniture, (4) clean the bathtubs, (5) clean the sinks, etc.  Now even if you write down, “Clean the house on Saturday”, chances are you will become overwhelmed thinking of the project as a whole.  Ugh!  But if you break it down step by step, you need only muster up the energy to do the next piece, which usually isn’t so bad.

So, your project list might include both personal and work items:

  • Clean the house on Saturday
  • Get cleaning supplies
  • Vacuum carpet
  • Dust furniture
  • Clean bathtubs
  • Clean sinks
  • Create new employee appreciation program
  • Call to George at XYZ Company to find out what they do for employee appreciation
  • Talk to HR about doing an employee survey
  • Invite Bob, Mary, Jim, and Sue to be on an employee appreciation committee

Don’t be surprised if your project list has 50+ projects on it.  Take the time to capture it all, so you’ve identified all the balls you have in the air.  It will feel good to get everything down where you can see it.  And again, your Project List can be on paper or electronic.  Don’t worry if you can’t think of EVERY step required for each project.  As you work through the steps of the project, you’ll see what you need to add.  That leads to the Next Actions list.

3. A Next Actions list contains those things that are ready to be done.  This list contains those things that must happen as soon as you can do them – personal and professional.  From your Inbox, Tickler file, and Projects list, you can determine what your Next Actions are for the next week or so.  Next Actions that must happen on a particular day and/or time can go on your calendar.  Other Next Actions may not be time sensitive, in which case, you’ll keep them on your Next Actions list until you do them.  Again, the Next Actions list can be on paper or kept electronically.

If you have more than, say, 25 items on your Next Actions list, you might want to categorize them to make it easier to manage.  Categories might include:

  • Phone Calls
  • Errands
  • Computer Work
  • At Home
  • Agenda Items (for people and meetings)
  • Read/Review
  • Waiting For (anything you’re waiting for someone else to do)

Use categories that make sense for you.  You’ll need to review your Projects and Next Actions lists at least once per week to make sure you’re on track.