Like every other executive, you’d love to spend your days peering into new corners of the company and blue-skying breakthrough growth strategies. But work is piling up on your desk and it needs to be done now, by you. There’s that report that your CEO wants — yesterday. The budget needs to be tied up by the end of the week. You have to sign a new lease by the end of the year. And to top it all off, your most reliable staffer is heading off for a six-month leave.
Having too little time is one of the most common complaints voiced by executives, and it has gotten worse over the past few years. CFOs now often function as defacto COOs, tending not only to finance but overseeing IT, HR, facilities, corporate travel — you name it. And since finance isn’t a revenue-generating department, CFOs are usually wary about hiring any sort of help. Other senior executives face similar challenges.
It’s not just the volume of work that interferes with playing a more critical role; it’s also the force of habit. Odds are good that you have risen up through the ranks by being adept at certain tasks, and therefore those tasks remain on your to-do list. We all know that teaching someone else to do them requires an investment of time — perhaps a substantial investment — and thus is often put off. And technology also plays a part: E-mail, voicemail, video meetings, and other relatively new modes of communication and information-sharing provide plenty of convenience, but they also create rhythms and expectations that can be very difficult to ignore.
The reality is that each of us has the same amount of time in a day: It’s how we choose to spend it that makes the difference. To make a more strategic contribution to the company, you must deliberately extract yourself from the minutiae and putting-out-of-fires that threaten to fill the hours. Ironically, to ultimately succeed in winning the time war, you must assign yourself more work, such as gaining a better understanding of operations, getting more involved in the sales process, or building
closer relationships with board members.
That may sound oxymoronic, but it is only by vowing to take on such higher-level duties that most of us finally find the discipline to readdress our longstanding time
management habits and make the needed changes. Or, put another way, we often remain mired in busywork until we vow to do other work.
Easy enough to say. But how do you get there? We talked to time management experts and to several CFOs at high-growth companies about how they manage their time to stay focused on higher-level company decisions — without letting the details slip. Here is what they offered:
1. Prioritize Daily
Gary Vilchick, CFO of application security vendor Veracode, says he takes time each morning to consider where he and his team can add the most value in a day.
For him, the opportunity to participate in winning new business trumps all, even though it doesn’t allow him to cross a standard task off his list. “Some customers are a little bit hesitant at times because we’re a young company,” says Vilchick. “So a very valuable interrupt for me, which I would prioritize at the top of any list, would be to spend time helping the sales team land those customers by walking them through our business model and helping them understand how the company is doing.”
2. Focus on Your Team
“To me, the most important piece of time management is making sure you’ve surrounded yourself with really smart people, people who don’t need handholding or babysitting,” says Brian K. Roberts, CFO of insulin pump maker Insulet. “It’s our strong finance team that provides me the leverage to spend more time with the CEO, and to make sure I’m in sync with him, which adds an incredible amount of value.”
If you don’t have a great team to start with, either upgrade or re-train. In many cases, helping staffers set stretch goals or find creative ways to learn new tasks can be energizing and rewarding for all involved.
3. Remember That Your Job Is Often To Delegate, Not To Do.
“Before you become an executive, you’re really good at getting things done; you rise and rise because of that,” says time management expert Peter Turla. “But when you become an executive, you have to realize that you’re supposed to be getting things done through other people, rather than doing them yourself.”
4. Encourage People — Including Yourself — to Leave the Office.
Counter-intuitive though it may be, Black Duck CFO Ken Goldman takes great delight in finding ways to get the fast-growing software company’s employees out of the office. Everyone gets their birthdays off, and, as of this summer, the office closes early every Friday from Memorial Day to Labor Day. That’s in large part because Goldman himself finds the practice so refreshing.
“I view my role as being always on, but there’s nothing like sitting on a beach and looking at the crystal blue water to think about how I can make the company better, rather than staring at the black monitor on a white desk,” says the veteran finance executive. Yet, few people will do it without the official word. “I’m 31 years into my career and still feel guilty if I leave the office early,” Goldman says.
You may not be able to do all of these at once. But if you constantly feel overwhelmed, consider what is holding you back. Could it be a fear of moving outside your comfort zone? Is having too little time a defense mechanism? As management consultant Bill Domings notes, “Time management is an easy answer for tougher issues that may be lurking under the surface,” including a lack of confidence about taking on new tasks and leaving familiar ones behind.
You have plenty to do. Just remember, being effective is not about getting everything done. It’s about getting the right things done at the right time.
BUILDING THE STRATEGIC CFO
Chapters in the CFO action series presented by Build and GE Capital:
Chapter 1: Own the Big Picture
Chapter 2: Create More Time
Chapter 3: Build a Better Team
Chapter 4: The Great Communicator
Chapter 5: Big Data, Big Results
Chapter 6: Think and Act Sustainably
Chapter 7: The Leading Edge
Chapter 8: Think Global, Whether You Are or Not
Chapter 9: Building a Risk-Intelligent Culture
Chapter 10: How to Win the War for Talent
Chapter 11: Technology & You
Chapter 12: The Art of Strategic Influence
Chapter 13: Building the Customer-Centric Organization