When you meet a productive leader you always know it, even if you don’t recognize what makes them productive. It turns out that successful people share a few basic productivity building blocks. I have had the privilege of spending time with leaders such as Larry Ellison, Satya Nadella, Marc Benioff, and Sir Martin Sorrell. As I interacted with them, a common set of productive behaviors started emerging. It became clear that prioritization, responsiveness, presence, bias-for-action, and perpetual beta were key traits. As I became more interested in the kinds of behaviors that make successful people effective, I began to interview additional exemplary CEOs. The purpose of the Work Smarter Series will be to share these interviews and create a conversation around them.
To kick off the series, I will introduce the basic building blocks of productivity.
- Perpetual Beta
What you choose to focus on is the most important driver of productivity.
The foundational building block is prioritization. Do you focus on the right things? Prioritization precedes all other building blocks – without it, you very efficiently complete the wrong tasks. According to Auren Hoffman, CEO of SafeGraph, “What you choose to focus on is the most important driver of productivity.” Prioritization allows you to take a finite amount of energy and focus it on precisely what matters. The question you continually ask at the beginning of every month, week, or day is: What is the most important thing to accomplish now? Once you have your priorities straight, you can get the most impact from the remaining building blocks.
If it takes less than a minute to get something done, just do it now.
The next building block is about responsiveness. Obviously, you can’t be super-fast to respond to everyone’s needs, and that’s why priorities matter. What is surprising to me is that I have found that when I communicate with high-performing leaders, I almost always get a faster response than when I interact with executives who have a smaller span of influence. Tod Sacerdoti, CEO of BrightRoll, who is himself responsive, said: “If it takes less than a minute to get something done, just do it now.” If you know your priorities, being fast on what is important is highly valued by the people around you. To be complete, responsiveness has to be balanced with depth of response.
All of the leaders I have mentioned above had a particular area of domain expertise and functional depth that helped them balance speed of response with depth of insight. For example, Larry Ellison had built such a deep footprint in the enterprise business stack that, when we were contemplating a deeper issue on strategy his response wasn’t just fast, it was insightful. That balance between having a fast response and having a response that is insightful is crucial.
Multi-tasking with electronic media negatively affects your IQ.
Presence is about being deeply focused on the task at hand. According to research out of Stanford University, multi-tasking with electronic media negatively affects your IQ. In some cases, it degrades your performance more than losing a whole night’s sleep. Presence is the opposite of multi-tasking. If your current task involves interacting with other people, presence is about fully dedicating yourself to them. That attention control involves fostering a couple of habits. First, good leaders get rid of addictive distractions like notifications by keeping them at a minimum while they are in meetings. Second, they act interested in the task at hand, which requires that they prioritize their time in advance. Rarely have I seen productive leaders sit in a meeting and drift off to respond to emails or send a text. Presence energizes others because it makes them feel important, which in turn multiplies their productivity.
I personally never left a meeting with Thomas Kurian, the president of Oracle, without a very clear set of actions, timelines, or targets.
Another attribute that is uniformly visible in leaders who have operational roles is a bias-for-action. A bias-for-action is a continual attempt to get to the goal by translating potential ideas into action. Leaders with a bias-for-action know how to balance a need for more data with an ability to drive outcomes. A bias-for-action is also about holding people accountable and seeking the completion of the action. I personally never left a meeting with Thomas Kurian, the president of Oracle, without a very clear set of actions, timelines, or targets.
For the first decade of Facebook’s explosive growth, Mark Zuckerberg embraced this concept with the motto “move fast and break things.”
The final building block of productive leaders is perpetual beta, which is to be consistently in a state of improvement, to borrow a phrase from Philip Tetlock, a professor of psychology at UPenn. It requires grit because you need to try and sometimes fail in novel tasks, and then analyze and adjust from those failures. For the first decade of Facebook’s explosive growth, Mark Zuckerberg embraced this concept with the motto “move fast and break things.” People with perpetual beta are always seeking feedback on how to improve. They do not get too comfortable with one point of view. Such leaders remain open to signs that a better path is around the corner. For example, even Facebook’s slogan changed after it hit its billionth monthly user.
The best way to observe great leaders is to see them in action in a meeting.
The best way to observe great leaders is to see them in action in a meeting. Meetings should be the ultimate collaborative tool, but most are poorly executed. Meetings led by these business titans are anything but. I have observed many of the key building blocks put into action in meetings with these leaders. Specifically:
Their meetings have clear agendas focused on only critical topics (prioritization). In meetings, they are fully present and engaged. I have witnessed how thoroughly they read supporting material and how quickly they challenge the details (presence). During the discussions, they all displayed a desire to both make decisions and have clear actions beyond the meeting (bias-for-action). Finally, they challenged their team to push beyond their comfort zones (perpetual beta).
Whether you manage a company of 100,000 or you are an individual contributor, you can always improve your productivity. By working on the basics first, you will have laid the foundation needed to be an extraordinary executive.