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Finding the Time to Lead

Don't have the time to cultivate good employees? <i>Make</i> time! You'll thank yourself later.

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It's a common complaint, one I hear from many of the entrepreneurs who read my book on leadership: "I know I ought to work on communications, employee morale, and training and development issues, but I simply don't have the time. I'm too busy doing my own work to invest in leading my employees to higher levels of performance in their work."

Hold everything! If you are one of the many who struggle to get through your pile of work, consider this: The more leadership you provide, the less work you'll have to do yourself, and the more able and productive your people will be. In fact, at the risk of irritating already-stressed entrepreneurs and managers, I'd hazard a guess that anyone who feels overwhelmed by their work today is not doing everything they can to lead their people. Because ideally (and it's not that unrealistic of an ideal), the main job of the leader is to lead, not to crank out the work himself or herself.

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How do you move closer to this ideal? Sears Credit recently revamped the job descriptions of all their managers and supervisors, who are now expected to spend the majority of their time on employee development. That's a radical thought, isn't it? If you spent the majority of your days helping your employees get better at their work, would your in box soon be empty? Maybe!

Experts tell me there are many ways to ride a horse, and most of them are wrong. Amateur riders find themselves bumping and sliding around, setting up contrary motions that make the ride terribly uncomfortable and waste a lot of energy. That is a pretty good metaphor for how most of us wrestle with time, especially at work. And this problem is most acute for workplace leaders, who not only need to manage their own time well, but also need to make sure their employees are efficient and effective. Time seems to be the thing that every leader values most and has the least of. Time is leadership's most limited resource.

Time management expert Dick Cipoletti and I have been talking about this problem and what to do about it, and his advice falls into the category of learning to ride the horse more easily and naturally rather than trying to force it to go faster or farther than it can.

For instance, business leaders are plagued by interruptions. They receive hundreds of calls or e-mails each day, and employees often seek their advice or assistance. When asked, these time-pressured managers can't even recall where the time went. The day seems to slip by as they put out time fires, until whatever they might have wanted to do is long since forgotten.

A simple trick can improve the situation: Write down your one most important goal for the day, then work on it first thing in the morning before allowing interruptions. Schedule visitors to come back at the end of this focused work period if need be. If the leader clocks an hour or two of focused work on his or her key project or problem, then the rest of the day can often be given over to answering questions and helping employees be productive without that panicked feeling that you aren't doing what you need to.

Also, don't rescue employees by doing a task after they mess it up. Teach them the right way, even if it takes twice as long, then you won't have to do it for them again tomorrow. ("Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.")

Another trick is to recognize that your work style can be a source of chaos and lost time for you, and possibly for your employees as well. Many entrepreneurs are either highly creative (read: disorganized--that's my problem), or the opposite, highly organized and systematic. Either way, we rely on our relatively extreme qualities to build our businesses.

You gotta be a bit crazy to be an entrepreneur after all! But when we impose our style on a business and its employees, we may be forcing many of them to work in ways that don't feel natural and thus create friction and wasted time. In my next column, I'll talk about two tricks to help with this issue: Adjusting your style to permit others with different styles to work in their preferred ways, and complementing your style with a key employee (like my extremely patient assistant, Stephanie) who brings what you lack to the equation.

Alex Hiamis a trainer and consultant and the author ofMotivating & Rewarding Employees: New and Better Ways to Inspire Your Peopleas well asMarketing for Dummies. His new book,Making Horses Drink, is now available from Entrepreneur Press and major bookstores.