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The secret to great prioritisation

When you’re in leadership—especially in middle management or what I prefer to call the ‘B-Suite’—you often don’t have time to breathe, let alone think. You’re being pulled down into the detail of your team, pulled sideways into collaborations, and pulled upwards into committees, papers and board preparation. 

The high pace of work that we almost take for granted today, plus the uncertainty of two COVID years and more to come, creates an environment that puts the B-Suite under almost impossible pressure. So it’s no surprise that the B-Suite experiences higher burnout than any other workforce cohort.  

If you’re a B-Suite leader, I’d be surprised if you haven’t felt at least some of the burnout indicators made famous by Maslach.  

  • exhausted
  • cynical or detached from work, wondering if you trust them or if it’s all worth it 
  • concern that you are failing, even if others say otherwise because you just can’t see the progress you used to see 
  • In addition to the Maslach index, I believe guilt plays a large role in leadership burnout in particular. You experience guilt when you feel you should be able to handle all this, yet you can’t. You worry that your team members are suffering as much as you are, you feel responsible for that suffering, and fear that they hold you accountable or even blame you for it.  

Why does it matter now?

You’re already running your business fairly lean. Many organisations stood down or laid off during COVID, and those that didn’t were busier than ever but being frugal just in case. This meant that you have all gone well past ‘doing more with less’ in terms of work output and are now at capacity all the time. 

Then let’s add the magic ingredient of burnout and disengagement, which is far from just a B-Suite issue but one that’s affecting everyone at every level of your organisation today. That tips us into over-capacity territory. 

It is the hard job of the B-Suite Leader to create something from these factors—to increase productivity as we move into a cautiously optimistic COVID Year 3—and to do that, increase motivation in the workforce and mediate often unrealistic demands from the executive.  

What can you do about it?

It is time to urgently start learning to push back, reprioritise and reallocate resources, and to do that you need to have firm strategic priorities as your anchor-point.  

There are two tools that I teach my clients to practice until they are second nature. 

Start with a strategic prioritisation framework. This is simply a more sophisticated take on the Eisenhower model of urgent v important, asking you to prioritise based on value versus effort instead.  

  • Determine high value as activity that returns revenue, saves costs, avoids major risks or enhances reputation. These need to be items that your stakeholders value highly too, not just yourself or your team. 
  • Determine high effort as activity that will take resources, time or money to achieve, usually more than you have available right now.  

By mapping all your activities – and especially new requests – to this matrix, you’ll rapidly have a way to categorise requests and communicate why their request is not as high priority to others on your desk right now or is too hard unless they do something to make it easier.  

This is where the next tool – the Iron Triangle – comes in handy. The rule is simple: “you can have it quick, cheap or good, but you can only have two”. These are the three fastest questions to make an item ‘easier’ to accommodate.  

  • Can they delay the timeline? If so, you can queue it for your team to accommodate as a priority next month.  
  • Can they provide some funding or resources to the team? If so, you can increase capacity and get it done. 
  • Can they reduce expectations in terms of the standard they’ll receive? A minimum viable product can be turned around far more quickly than a finished, polished product. Many of my clients have implemented a gold, silver or bronze standard to their service or product levels to control the expectations more clearly. 

Right now, you might be thinking this won’t work:  

  • I’m too busy—well of course you are, about 30% of which is working on things you could stop if you prioritised. 
  • I don’t have a corporate or divisional strategy to anchor from—as we’ve seen, that doesn’t really matter, you can prioritise accurately enough without one. 
  • We never say no or stop things, so there’s no point prioritising—actually it’s the other way around. You never say no or stop things because you have no prioritising framework.  
  • It can’t be that easy—Well of course it’s not, but if you don’t start here, you’ll get nowhere. 

For high performing and transformative leaders, the act of prioritising is so ingrained in their minds and ways of working, that they don’t even notice they are doing it. For the rest of us, it’s a learnable habit and one I cannot recommend highly enough.  

Rebecca Houghton, author of ‘Impact: 10 Ways to Level up your Leadership’ ($29.95), is a Leadership and Talent Expert and founder of BoldHR. Rebecca builds B-Suite leaders with C-Suite impact by working at an organisational, team and individual level.

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