Are you working all those hours because you have to?

It’s a lot easier when your people know what they’re doing and you don’t have to keep giving them instructions

Parkinson’s Law says that work expands to the space allotted to it. A moment’s reflection on our experience will convince any of us that this is certainly true.

Nature abhors a vacuum, so things have a tendency to spread out, whether we like it or not. The antidote is discipline, and it’s not something that everybody has.

People in high places often have to work long hours. Sometimes this can’t be avoided, but often it’s self-imposed. In a recent meeting with the CEO of a local company, I lost track of the number of times we were interrupted. Upon entering, he asked me to shut his door, so we wouldn’t be disturbed.

His phone started ringing before he sat down, “Sorry, I have to take this.” Even before he finished his phone conversation, his cellphone started ringing. He answered it and told whoever to hold on while he finished his first call.

As far as I could tell, these calls were coming from inside the company, and he responded with operational guidance in each case. In our one-hour meeting, I’m not sure I got 15 minutes of his time.

That night I watched an old video of the 1987 America’s Cup races in Australia. Dennis Conner, who had lost the cup aboard Liberty in ’83, went Down Under to get it back, and he did. They had a ticker-tape parade for him and his crew in New York, and President Reagan even invited them to the White House.

At one point, they interviewed Conner, and he explained he could tack Stars & Stripes without saying a word. “It wouldn’t even interrupt the latest story someone was telling.”

There are 12 sailors on a 12-meter yacht. They’re professionals — the best in the business. Each has won many races in smaller boats on their own. They all know their particular jobs and what to do in any given situation. They understand the overall objective and put their hearts and souls into sailing faster and better than the other boat, so they can win the race.

Running a business may not be easy, but neither is racing a 12. In either case, it’s a lot easier when your people know what they’re doing and you don’t have to keep giving them instructions.

Profitable action

In the case of my CEO friend, I don’t think his people were incompetent. I think he just likes to make all the decisions. I got tired after just watching him for an hour. And of course the wear and tear on him has got to be exorbitant. There’s a much easier way.

Assuming he has competent people, he could have a short meeting with them every morning and lay out the game plan for the day. He could check periodically on how they’re doing, but there should be no need for urgent communications at each decision point. When he decides to tack, so to speak, he shouldn’t have to be deciding for and instructing each crew member on their part of the game.

It’s true things don’t always go as planned. Any sailor will tell you there is often a significant difference between the forecast and the actual conditions. On top of that, you never know what the competition will do. There can be lots of surprises, but they’re part of the game.

There’s an age-old concept of profitable action that would work wonders in this company. Once the CEO explains his game plan, everyone should know the goal. That makes decision-making a snap, and everyone should make the same decisions the CEO would make without his guidance.

Any action that brings you closer to the goal is profitable action. If the goal is reducing cycle time and improving on-time delivery, everyone should make decisions that enable them to reach that goal without cheating. Cutting corners usually causes problems that make things worse. For instance, nobody wants a product on time if it doesn’t work.

Admittedly, this model is simplistic, and some decisions do require in-depth analysis and discussion, but these are few and far between.

There’s no substitute for developing decision-making abilities in your people. Teach them how to make the decisions you would make, but let them do it.

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or

Categories: Business Advice