Winners or Losers: Where Does a CEO Spend Time?

If you research this topic, you’ll find unanimity around the suggestion that you should spend most of your time with your high performers. But if this is a natural law of leadership, why do many in leadership roles spend so much of their time dealing with problems? This exhortation by itself is not that helpful, is it?

If you have multiple divisions, stores, or product lines in your company and one or several of them are floundering, it is not natural to say, “Oh well,” and then head out to visit your most profitable division head. You’re most likely going to drop what you are doing and go fix the problem!

We get rewarded for solving problems. Stories of heroics in leadership are not often about consistency, effective planning, and steady performance, though they should be!

It is naïve to think that you can ignore those troubled business segments and poor-performing people. You can’t. However, you can be more effective in dealing with them. If you are going to spend more time with your winners, you must spend less time somewhere else, correct? Here are a few suggestions for increasing your effectiveness at dealing with problems so that you can spend more time with your winners:

  1. Get comfortable making tough decisions about people, projects, and products. If, after reasonable attempts at improvement, there is none, cut your losses. The sunk cost fallacy is well known and frequently violated! This is the primary difference I see between mediocre leaders and great ones.
  2. Learn techniques and processes to be more effective in a leadership role, including problem-solving.
  3. Examine your calendar for proof that you are spending time with the right people and on the right projects.There is probably a gap between desired activity and reality. Schedule time with your winners and stick to it!
  4. Avoid telling people “Bring me solutions, not problems.” This approach is counterproductive and can cause problems to get buried. However, coaching your people through tough issues with questions (e.g., What thoughts do you have on how to solve this? What have you tried so far? If you had a gun to your head and had to solve this right now, what would you do?) is a good idea. You want to transfer the skill.

Spending time with your high performers is more fun than getting mired in the muck, but you should be clear about what you are doing. Don’t mess up a good thing! Learning from them so that you can spread their success would be at the top of my list. Years ago, when I was an executive in a large multi-unit chain, we used to spend a good deal of our time touring stores, learning what the best performers were doing, and then spreading those practices across all the other stores. The recognition they receive will be appreciated as well.

Challenging them in a positive way will likely bring you even more great performance. Just because they are good doesn’t mean that they can’t be great!

If you think of yourself as a firefighter, you’ll always be stuck in problem-solving mode. It’s better to think like a pilot and avoid the turbulence.

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