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Sweating the Big Stuff

Stop putting out the fires and start strategizing

Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based business and legal affairs writer. She can be reached at, stalked via @paddleink on Twitter, and visited at

Apr 1, 2014

by Marzena Czarnecka

illustration Pete Ryan

United States Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum cemented her philosophy in life as she processed the trauma she endured during the first Iraq war. It’s shockingly simple. Ready? “Prioritize A, B and C. Discard C.”

Brilliant, right? And thoroughly effective. You’re going to do that right now. A. B. C. Discard … what are you doing? I said discard C. Sweetheart. All of it. Why are you fiddling with that folder? Chuck it. It’s not important. I know Joe attached a sticky-note to it (how quaint!) saying, “Please review and comment when you have the chance.” And I know it’s easy to flip through the pages. And then make a big check next to that particular item. Reviewed Joe’s folder. Check! But see, that’s how C – the unimportant stuff – takes over your agenda and keeps you from focusing on A and B.

You bristle. You are a howling success and excel at meeting every deadline, target and metric. Absolutely. You do all the stuff that needs to be done … so long as it’s urgent. If it’s attached to timelines, deadlines, operational day-to-day and even quarter-to-quarter, year-to-year matters, it gets done. Every competent business person and leader – and you are oh-so-competent – gets all that done, because the price of dropping those balls is failure. Some of that stuff is A, but most of it is B, which means that most of A – the really important stuff – you never get to. Be honest. Of course you don’t. You don’t because it’s … well, first; it’s really difficult. And second, because it’s not urgent. It doesn’t have a ticking clock attached. No one’s going to scream if you push it off to tomorrow. Next week. Next month.

You know I’m right. Donna Finley, principal and co-founder with Framework Partners, has worked with hundreds of you over the years and she has a succinct list of all the A things you never get to, no matter how often you put them on your to do list. Boiled down to its essentials, the A pile should consist of strategic planning, risk management, building relationships, and governance/leadership issues. All that Big Picture stuff you know you should invest your time in … but don’t.

But – you have to learn how to tackle this bit of your list. Because the price of ignoring A is eventual failure. Running a company without a strategic plan and a sense of where you’re heading? You’re doomed. And you’re too smart to fail. So: Here’s what you have to do.

Create urgency
If your strategic plan-succession plan-risk mitigation strategy-board governance overhaul does not have a deadline, it’s not a plan. “If you don’t have a deadline, you just have a dream,” says Laura Stack, also known as the Productivity Pro and author of Execution Is The Strategy.

As a leader, Stack says, your job is to create that deadline and then work to meet it.

All right. Choose an agenda item. Give it a deadline. Now, if you’re like most people, you’re going to ignore that item until three days before the deadline, panic, and either do a half-ass job or just push it until the next quarter and feel terrible about yourself. Right? Wrong. You’re going to do something different.

Create a start line
Tomorrow? Next week? When are you going to start working on this project? “I’m busy. I can always find things to occupy my time. If I haven’t nailed down how I’m going to integrate a particular strategy into my day-to-day existence, six months will go by, a year will go by – and it won’t happen,” says Stack.

You have your strategy and your deadline, now break it down. “Think of start dates, next steps. Here’s this massive 100-hour thing I need to finish in six months. Break it down. Think in terms of how to begin,” Stack urges.

Throw away your daily to do list
Les Hewitt, author of The Power of Focus, likes to tell his clients, “The worst thing you can do is plan your day.” Don’t panic: he’s not telling you to throw away your agenda. Not exactly. He’s trying to teach you how to discard C. And discarding C begins with moving away from what you think you need to accomplish in this hour – in this short eight-to-five (remember, working more is not necessarily indicative of being productive) time block – and focusing on the most important, mission-critical priorities you need to accomplish over a longer term.

Instead of planning your day, Hewitt wants you to plan your week.

Better yet, plan your quarter. Have 90-day targets and goals, operational and Big Picture, that you’re working to meet. Plan your year. And only then, once you have a clear idea of that Big Picture, pay attention to your week – and finally, your day. “But people start at, ‘What am I going to do today,’ and they get distracted from what they should focus on,” Hewitt says.

Wait. Did you catch that potential problem? We’ve started by creating urgency … but do you really know what you’re getting urgent about? Do you know what your priorities should be – what you should focus on?

Give yourself time to think
There are many methodologies for crafting Big Picture plans; what they all boil down to is this: you need to give yourself time to think. So put time to think on your agenda and make it inviolate. I know I just told you to throw away your daily to do list: don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to think every day just yet. But open your calendar right now and put an hour-long weekly meeting, between you and you, into that schedule right now. Monday at 9 a.m.? Thursday at 3 p.m.? Matters not when, take an hour. Too much? Thirty minutes. During this time, you don’t check email, Twitter or texts. You don’t respond to the telephone or open your office door. You think. You work on A. You grind at what that Big Picture is supposed to be. You ask yourself questions. And if one of those questions is, “Why is this so hard?” – that’s a terrific start.

All right, now look at that calendar from afar and block off a weekend every quarter. It’s your strategic retreat. You can do it in a place you love that makes you relax or you can lock yourself in a hotel room. Do it all by yourself, or with a “strategic thinking” partner – someone in your company or a business colleague.

Get help
For Finley, working on the Big Picture starts with some heavy self-awareness work and recognizing whether you’re the type of leader who can transform an organization or whether what you excel at is continuous operational improvement. Management gurus have a transformational leadership fetish, but here’s the thing: not everyone is one, and that’s OK – so long as you know who you are, what you can do, and how to get help with the tasks you don’t excel at. If you’re a terrible transformational thinker (I don’t believe it, myself, I think you rock, but for argument’s sake, let’s say you’re an operational superstar, but thoroughly strategically impaired), get help from third party experts and consultants. They are legion and, as Finley notes, a third-party evaluation will bring to the fore issues people immersed in the business do not see.

But they won’t help you think. They won’t create and protect your time to think. You’ll still have to do that for yourself.

Get accountable
Ready to get serious about how you tackle your agenda? You don’t look enthusiastic. What’s the matter? Overwhelmed? No? Ah, you call it realistic. You do know yourself. And you know that one of the reasons your risk mitigation plan is still a pipe dream and you haven’t had a good, hard look at that really bad shareholders’ agreement in over a decade is because you’re the boss and nobody’s riding you to get it done.

Find a way to be accountable, says Hewitt. Get a mentor. Connect with a peer group of leaders with similar issues. Get a coach, therapist or third-party-advisor. Make your commitments and timelines public to your employees and commit to giving them an account of how you’re meeting them.

Now. A. B. C. Discard C.

Our experts recommend:

The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Lives, by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander (Penguin, 2000);

Execution is THE Strategy, by Laura Stack (2014);

The Power of Focus: How to hit your Business, Personal and Financial Targets with Absolute Certainty, by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hanson and Les Hewitt (Health Communications Inc., 2000)

2 Responses to Sweating the Big Stuff

  1. Philip Uglow says:

    Thanks for the great article Marzena. With our client we have found that short, weekly action item review meetings keep people focused and on task. No one wants to go to one of these meetings and state they haven’t met their action item so the most they ever get behind is one week.

    It makes it easy for leaders because they just need to make sure there is action and they can coach their employees on how to effectively achieve their goals outside of this meeting.


  2. Jim Thomson says:

    Really enjoyed your article. Thanks!!!