Management Matters: Clearing your plate for more purpose-driven work

In this month’s column, I want to pivot away from the larger identity questions that come with leading and provide you with a practical tool that many of my clients have found helpful. This tool helps manage the barrage of demands on your time, on your organization, and on your staff — demands which often come without adequate resources. This tool can help create space for the projects that matter, in a non-aggressive way, of course.

One of my clients, Jeff (a pseudonym), an academic arts leader in a prestigious research university, was very successful at fundraising, in addition to his “day job” of running his unit. He had that “Midas touch” — the ability to walk into a room, inspire participants, and produce significant financial commitments to the university’s mission. As a result, the president of the university often asked him to join on fundraising trips and in a wide variety of meetings.

Jeff’s optimism and enthusiasm was a benefit to the university in other ways. His presence on committees helped them take action and move forward, instead of focusing on barriers. As a result, Jeff was on several campus-wide committees.

Jeff’s skills reminded me of a phrase I heard once long ago that “competency is its own worst reward.” The more competent and capable someone is, the more likely they are “rewarded” with requests for their help.

At that time, I was working with him on his unit’s strategic plan, a project that always demands the leader’s full attention, since planning is also culture building. At one of our check-in meetings, he pointed out how his time was stretched to the breaking point, like a thin layer of ice that was not going to bear weight. He asked me how he could say no to requests for his time.

I suggested that instead of saying no, he ask the following questions of anyone requesting his time, particularly those in peer or leadership roles. I call these the 5Qs:

  • What priority level is this project for the institution, using an A, B, C rating, where A is a top priority and C is a low priority? Financial and human resource matters often are rated an A, but so are long-term strategic initiatives that help the organization make significant leaps forward. C-level priorities can include “nice to do” projects or projects with no funding or support from the greater institution.
  • What financial resources will be provided for this project?
  • What staffing will be provided for this project?
  • How will you know this project has been successful?
  • What would you suggest I take off my plate to make room for this project?

These questions create a thoughtful, interactive, mutual educational moment. They force both parties to think carefully about whether the project should be pursued at all, and what the true costs will be. And the last question forces the requestor to acknowledge and understand what’s on your plate.

There’s a corollary to this line of inquiry that I’ve been preaching to higher education institutions for years. What is the algorithm that ties each faculty hire or student to the resources needed to support that hire or admit? For each faculty hire, what’s the load on administrative staff, space, technology, etc.? It seems to me it should be possible to create such an equation.

Take the hire of a new staff member: At Yale, staff used to get almost two months off a year, taking into account PTO, holidays, and recesses. That means that for every four or five staff members Yale hires, it needs another one to two to cover the time off of the others.

Let’s go back to the issue of decreasing demands and workload. There’s one other tool I use frequently with clients that complements the 5Qs. It’s one of hundreds of time management tools, but clients have told me it’s helpful. I call this tool the 4Ds.

Combined with the 5Qs, I believe you can use this simple tool to create a refocused work portfolio that moves your own and your institution’s missions forward. You apply the 4Ds to your existing to-do list to thin it out.

The 4Ds are:

  • Do.
  • Delay.
  • Delegate.
  • Drop.

A few thoughts on these 4Ds:


  • It seems particularly hard for people to drop things; instead, just put it on delay. You might find that in a few months, the task has disappeared from your to-do list. Or it no longer seems important, and you can drop it.
  • As for delegating, there are myriad ways to delegate, both at work and at home. For example, at home, consider hiring help, if finances allow. At work, delegate up, sideways, down, and out: up to leaders, sideways to peers, down to staff, and out to vendors.There’s much more to be said about the 4Ds, but I thought I’d share them with the 5Qs since, combined, they can be a powerful tool for creating a more balanced and focused workload.

    “At work, delegate up, sideways, down, and out: up to leaders, sideways to peers, down to staff, and out to vendors.”

    Tips and questions for moving forward

  • Does your workload and schedule align with your long-term goals?
  • Have you built in time for leading? For managing?
  • If you’re having problems delegating, can you take apart the underlying causes and work to resolve those?
  • And as always, is the work feeding your soul? As the writer Annie Dillard said, “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.”
  • If you have a specific management or leadership dilemma or question that you’d like addressed in this column, please feel free to email me at lfreebairnsmith@orgpg.com.


    About the Author: 

    Laura Freebairn-Smith is Partner and Cofounder of Organizational Performance Group.  Laura has been a consultant for such distinguished companies as the New York Times and People’s Bank. Her specialty is assisting leaders in realizing the full potential of their organizations through humanistic and analytical practices, while offering guidance in the redesign of infrastructure, the creation of strategic plans, and with organizational development.



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