“I'm sure you have noticed that, as a general rule, people with nothing to do want to do it with you.” -Zig Ziglar
Do you know that person in your organization that always needs you? That always calls you? That always stops by your office for a “brief moment” that ends up lasting 45 minutes?
If you're anything like me, you're a sucker for them. In the past – and even now – limiting the amount of time that people have unlimited access to me has always been a challenge. A few reasons for that:
- I like helping people. Really, I do. It brings me joy. There's nothing that I enjoy more than spending time talking about how to help someone.
- I know that as a leader, there's no better time investment than in people. So, I should make the most of it, right?
- I haven't always known how to do anything else.
In talking with other leaders, I know this is a struggle for many of us. On one hand, many of us love to work with people and help serve them – and have a strong belief that we should spend lots of time to develop them. On the other hand, there are only so many hours in the day and there are 1-2 people in every organization that will want to spend all of those hours with you.
So, why is this a problem?
- Leaders don't have unlimited time. Of course we want to be responsive to people, but it's just not sustainable to say yes to every request.
- Time we spend with one person is time not spent somewhere else – perhaps on a more important project or initiative that really needs our attention.
- Our followers don't learn how to make decisions for themselves on more routine issues and situations.
- The people we lead have a much harder time learning how to be concise with their requests and needs if we give them unlimited time and access to us. Why be concise when time isn't a factor?
- Followers end up wasting their own time communicating to us when they could be doing more productive work.
- We send the unintentional message that schedules and time lines don't really matter in our organization.
Any of the above can be difficult in leadership, and I've seen at least one leader who consistently ran into problems with all of the above and eventually was leading a team that didn't take any of their business objectives seriously. Of course her people loved her, but she was running a failing business.
Obviously, I'm not advocating that we all shut our doors and let people fend for themselves…but we do need to think smart about how we utilize our time for everyone's benefit. Here are six habits that will help you work with those 1 or 2 people who hog your time.
1. Book appointments: When someone approaches you with a large topic that clearly will take more than 5 minutes to discuss – or if they are a frequently violator of the “this will just take a brief moment” promise, then book time for them to discuss it with you. This is for their benefit and our benefit. We actually make time to have the conversation and be fully present for it. They get time to consider all their topics and questions fully and what's most important. The catch? Better be fully present and ready to talk when/where you say you will.
2. Have them make a list: For years, I've had good success of keeping lists for the people who have led me in various capacities. When I think of something I want to talk about, I put it on the list. When the list gets long, I book a meeting with the leader and send the list in advance as a suggested agenda. Suggest that the people you lead do this as well. When the meeting begins, get out the list and get started.
3. Set time limits (and stick to them): This is one I struggle with. When you set the meeting, tell people how much time you're giving them. 45 minutes, 90 minutes, whatever. Then stick to it. If you're only halfway done with the agenda, set another time to chat. The mistake I make? I set the time with people, but I don't consistently stop the meeting at that time. The message I send unintentionally is that I'm not serious about timeliness. One suggestion if you keep struggling with this is to book something else right the first meeting so you force yourself to end on time. I've done this, and it gives you good practice with ending meetings.
4. Ask questions: Resist the temptation to start solving everyone's problems – that does not make you the hero. It only ensures that followers never learn to solve their own problems and that they will be right back in your office the next time they have an issue (after all, you were super helpful the last time). Instead, ask questions about what's going on and how they've considered resolving the problem.
5. Don't do work for people: By all means, help people, coach them, share stories, provide mentoring, give advice, and let them tap into your experience. Those are all critical tools for leaders. But don't do work for people. It's their job to resolve the situation and our job to support them in getting there. Make sure you aren't the one doing all the work – and if that's what always ends up happening, then one of you is probably unnecessary.
6. Listen for solutions: Train people to come to you with solutions. Whining and complaining is fine for a few minutes – we all need to vent – but then get the conversation focused on what recommendations they have to resolve the problem. If they don't have a recommendation, end the meeting and ask them to come back with one before you continue. Yes, that's tough – but once people know you are serious, they won't show up looking for help without a possible solution first. Then you've got something to work with. After all, they likely know the problem better than you do, since they are the ones dealing with it.