217 – What should our Executives spend their time doing, and why don’t they?

By Lancing Farrell                                                                            1800 words


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This is the question that crossed my mind recently when discussing time management with a colleague who is part of an Executive team that is reviewing use of their time. They have engaged a consultant to work with them individually to understand how to best use their time. Like every Executive team, they always have more work to do than the time available to do it.

After keeping a time diary in 15 minute intervals for two days and coding up each activity according to musts, wants, work that should be delegated, and work that shouldn’t be getting done at all, it became apparent to my colleague that more efficient use could be made of available time but this wouldn’t solve the problem. Optimising use of time wouldn’t provide enough to do all the work. The nature of the workload needed to be examined.

In part this examination was prompted by the time management consultant suggesting that the time spent by my Executive colleague in meetings with direct reports could be reduced or the meetings held less often. In considering this idea, she realised that this was some of the most valuable time they spent each week. She also realised that (at the moment) she didn’t have a better use for that time. What could she do with the time that would be more valuable than influencing and helping her direct reports? This realisation started her thinking more broadly about the work she was doing.

This led her to re-examine Elliott Jaques’ work on requisite leadership. In particular, Jaques’ concept of time defining the degree of complexity in managerial leadership roles. The idea that every task has a target completion time and that the longer the time-span of discretion for tasks, the more complex the role, struck her as relevant in working out where she needed to spend her time and effort.

Jaques’ describes seven levels of organisational hierarchy, each with a different time-span of discretion ranging from 3 months to 50 years. He calls them requisite levels. Based on this, my colleague sketched out the relationship between Jaques’ theory and her work and time allocation challenge in the following table.

Categories of accountability and responsibility in managerial hierarchy (Adapted from McMorland, 2005, Jaques and Clement, 1991).jaques 4Clearly, the majority of time and effort required from an Executive is at level 5 in linking corporate values to the behaviour expectations of individuals through the strategies and cultures existing within their directorate.

A key aspect of this will be applying Jaques definition of work as the ‘exercise of judgement and discretion in making decisions in carrying out goal-directed activities’. Working towards a goal requires the individual to have a concept of the future that is held in the present. Work that is happening now needs to have consideration of its contribution or impact on intentions for the future. This is the challenge for Executives in  level 5 and 6 roles to connect the work of individuals and their teams to corporate strategy and values.

In local government achieving this is further complicated because often it has been strong performance at level 4 that has seen managers rewarded with promotion to Executive roles. They have been good at maintaining current practice and improving it, but effectively linking corporate strategy to their directorates work and driving hard for a return on investment requires a new skill set. And it can be hard to let go of the behaviours that have made you successful.

Even when an Executive can see what they need to do and they are committed to doing it, restructuring the use of time to focus on level 5 work is difficult. Scheduling time to think ahead and plan for future actions is relatively straightforward. As my colleague advised, if you are a ‘morning person’ simply book out the start of each working day to do more reflective work from a suitably quiet place. Consider that this has a flow on effect to others that the Executive works with.

In particular, the direct reports who will now be asked to step up and ensure that their level 4 work is removed from the Executive’s diary (i.e. they don’t bring it to meetings). They will also be asked to implement many of the more future-oriented strategy and culture actions now being planned by their Director. This means that they in turn will have to get their direct reports to step up and operate at level 3 (if they are not doing so already).

Focussing on level 5 work will also require an Executive to take control of their time each day, week, month and year. It is interesting to think about who is actually deciding what work Executives should do? My colleague discovered that much of her work was directed towards her by instruments of delegation and organisation policy regarding authority and decision making. These will need to be reviewed to release Executives from ‘organisational drag’.

Executive’s in-boxes overflow daily with information sent to them for their consideration, requests for advice or a meeting or a decision. Much of it is work better suited to level 4 and it is often generated by managers who have been disempowered. Each week the Executive’s diary fills with meetings requested by others. Again, are these meetings to progress level 5 work or is it simply to make up for deficiencies in the way people are working at level 4 and below?

Even the Executive’s annual work plan is frequently determined by others in local government. The annual business planning cycle is typically ‘bottom-up’ with managers and their teams determining what they think is needed for them to deliver on their understanding of what the Council Plan intends. This is often a critical gap in the corporate ‘strategy to action’ chain through the managerial hierarchy.

Managers also generate capital works business cases, populate council meeting schedules and plan the review or creation of policy and strategy, which drives the work of Executives. As a result, Executives responding to the workload created for them by others can struggle to find the time for the thinking necessary to provide ‘top-down’ direction to transfer corporate strategy into value-adding activities.

I haven’t even mentioned the contribution Executives need to make to level 6 work in supporting the CEO and council to align corporate culture and vision with that of their directorate. The ‘learning through doing’ that occurs in operational arms of the council can often fail to influence strategy to the extent that it should.

Many Executives have become conditioned to this state of affairs. As Martin (2012) points out, there is often a lot of chaos in organisations. Working at the wrong level of hierarchy and the ‘busyness’ that ensues and consumes Executive time is part of that chaos in local government. Martin says that in many cases the behaviour causing the problem is habitual and invisible. Typically, she says organisations become so accustomed to it that they think it is normal, or they recognise it but think there is nothing that can be done about it, or they have embraced it as a good thing and developed skills in coping with it.

So, what is the answer? My colleague isn’t sure but has committed to restructuring her weekly diary to create time to look ahead 5-10 years to identify changes that will improve value in the future and plan how those changes can be tested and implemented. In her case, this will be blocks of structured time set aside at the start of each work day to work quietly or hold key meetings to convert thinking into action.

She will also be changing the way she meets with direct reports to shift the focus away from dealing almost entirely with operational problem solving and removing organisational barriers, and towards cultural improvement and strategy development. This will include ‘broadening out’ her meetings to reach beyond direct reports and deeper into her directorate to speak directly to more people about the cultural and strategic issues relevant to their work in the future.

She anticipates that this will be a gradual process to ‘wean’ her direct reports off frequent problem-solving support and to enable them to ensure that their direct reports are also moving into work at the right level of the hierarchy. It will also have implications for some key aspects of delegation as elected councillors are typically told that they need to deal with Directors, no matter what the issue. Many of their issues are highly operational and best dealt with by officers at level 3 or 4.

It seems that using time effectively and efficiently at the Executive level requires fundamental changes in the way work is designed (e.g. delegations), how daily time use is structured (e.g. time for analysis and forward thinking), reporting arrangements (e.g. meetings with direct reports), and the way everyone in the hierarchy does their work. Each level of the hierarchy needs to be operating at the requisite level.

One of the consequences of this not happening is what I call a ‘hierarchy inversion’. It is just like a temperature inversion, except instead of cold air being above warm air, level 5 and 6 work is being done by people tasked to work at level 3 and 4 (and the opposite happens with Executives dealing with basic operational issues raised by councillors).

This frequently results in strategies making long-term commitments of the organisation coming before the Executive team for approval once they have been formed. At this point, the gap between the Executive’s understanding of what is required in the future and that of the officer preparing the strategy usually becomes apparent. Often, it results in strategies being accepted that inadequate, or they are rejected and there is re-work.

It is imperative that Executives work at the right level in their hierarchy and that they support their direct reports in doing the same. Only then will there be time for the work that is most valuable.

Jaques, Elliott and Clement, Stephen D., 1991. ‘Executive Leadership – A practical guide to managing complexity’.

Martin, Karen, 2012. ‘The Outstanding Organisation – Generate business results by eliminating chaos and building the foundations for everyday excellence’.

McMorland, Judith, 2005. ‘Are you big enough for your job? Is your job big enough for you? Exploring Levels of Work in organisations’. University of Auckland Business Review, Vol.7, No.2. http://www.uabr.auckland.ac.nz/files/articles/Volume11/v11i2-are-you-big-enough-for-.pdf



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