Top 10 habits of effective executives

By Todd Ordal

A cynic says time is short. I don’t buy that. It is, however, predictable and constant.

Perhaps when you were younger, you worked somewhere where you just “put in your eight hours.” You were likely not engaged and frankly not providing much value to the organization. Hopefully that phase of your work life didn’t last long. Eight hours of nonengaging work that provides little value can feel like an eternity.

If you found some spark internally or discovered an organization with a vision that fully engaged you, you might have risen through the ranks and became a senior level person. I’ve yet to meet a senior executive or business owner who just puts in his or her eight hours. At that level, the question should be, “How much value can I add in the shortest amount of time?” (Frankly, in a well-run organization, that’s the question people at all levels should ask!) That question means you must become doggedly focused on the right activities and on using time as effectively as possible.

Here’s a list of behaviors I’ve observed in the most successful executives I’ve encountered in my many years as an executive, consultant and coach:

  1. They have an agenda. Call it a plan, objectives or an operational strategy, if you’d like, but they know what they need to do, and they start their day on offense, not defense. Big picture drives tactical activity. It’s far too easy to just head into the office and start checking emails (or worse, Twitter!) and answering the phone. Soon it’s 5 o’clock somewhere and you’re ready for a martini, having provided no value.
  2. They use their calendar effectively. Whether they schedule their activities or have an assistant who does so (keeping in mind their stated objectives), they get the important stuff on the calendar and stick to it as best as possible. Don’t tightly schedule every minute (have you ever had an on-time doctor appointment?), but understand that time allocation is your best offensive weapon.
  3. They take time to plan. Some do it weekly (i.e., Monday morning) and some do it daily, but they’re more proactive than reactive. I plan my week on Monday morning, and on Friday afternoon I review to make sure I haven’t missed anything. I usually have and need to either: a) do it on Saturday or b) move it to next week’s calendar. Stated objectives, of course, should drive the planning (see rule No. 1).
  4. They optimize the organization for effectiveness. Their team members clearly understand their objectives, accountabilities and broad authority limits. This reduces silly, tactical issues getting kicked upstairs.
  5. They have effective communication practices. This usually involves a brief update meeting with their direct reports — sometimes done standing up so they don’t turn into time suckers — as well as respectful and responsible email and call measures, such as: no CYA emails (“I’ll cc the boss to make sure”), timely responses (replying to an email a week from now takes the same amount of time as it does today!), and crisp communication. The objective is to have a communication plan that allows for rapid transfer of required information while weeding out the peripheral. This takes some thought and behavior management.
  6. They don’t confuse activity with results. Working all day on a new location is not the same as signing the lease. Spending 80 hours a week at the office doesn’t impress me (though I did it early in my career), but accomplishing planned objectives (and putting out a couple of fires, of course) in 40 hours does. More time does not always equate to better results.
  7. They don’t tolerate poor performance. The senior executives who are most effective are kind, but they’re not going to have weak people on their team for long. Ineffective leaders who put up with poor performance spend many hours every week peering over shoulders, correcting mistakes and putting out too many fires!
  8. They understand that what’s most important to their ideal customer should drive their behavior. They also spend time with those customers rather than getting filtered information. Senior executives must also walk the shop floor. Trust but verify with your own eyes.
  9. They’re not geeks, but they use technology effectively. Many years ago when I was running a large organization, I had a vice president of technology on my staff whom I scheduled for an hour a week in my office. His charter was to make me as effective and informed as possible with current (not bleeding-edge!) technology.
  10. They have defined processes for making decisions, evaluating opportunities and solving problems. If you have to handle every decision, opportunity or problem in a one-off fashion, your workday will be like having to learn to ride a bike … every day!

Your time is the greatest asset you have as an executive. You’d never purchase a large asset in your business and let it run at half capacity, would you? If you employ the practices outlined above, you’ll be way ahead of the pack!

Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy LLC. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He speaks, writes, consults and advises on issues of strategy and leadership. Todd is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Follow Todd on Twitter here. You can also find Todd at,  303-527-0417 or [email protected]

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