Ten Failures of a Leader: Majoring on the Minors (#7)

As a leader, there are always going to be competing priorities.  On a daily basis, a successful leader has to continuously analyze and reallocate one of the most critical resources to organizational success: his or her time.  The question that all leaders should ask on a regular basis is if I am best matching my time to the needs of the organization, team, and my employees.  If the answer is no, then there are productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness shortfalls that can be improved.  There are a variety of reasons for why the best match may not be occurring, but the one that has some of the most serious implications is referred to as majoring on the minors.

Majoring on the minors occurs when a leader allocates a disproportionate amount of time to minor or lower level activities instead of focusing on duties more congruent with their leadership position.  A successful leader should focus on surrounding him or herself with competent managers and staff, creating a clear and desirable vision of the future, and enabling employees to meet their individual as well as the organizational goals.

I worked with an executive in a competitive, service organization that had moved from being a project manager to leading the organization.  As a project manager, he had exceeded individual, team, and organizational goals countless times and was known for being tough, detailed oriented, organized, and responsive.  As an executive, he kept all of these traits, but did not supplement his abilities with any additional skills.  He ran the organization like a single project instead of a growing and dynamic organization that needed regular guidance on strategy and execution.  After several years, he was exhausted, staff left on a regular basis, and the organization was stuck in basically the same place it was years before.  As we discussed the situation, we turned to how he allocated his time and it became evident that he was majoring on the minors.  As an executive, he spent a considerable amount of time overseeing day to day activities of clerical staff, reviewing small dollar expenses, challenging staff on small details, and micro-managing the managers.    He did little that would be considered truly strategic, publicly visible, or growth-oriented.  The damage of his approach was less evident as long as the markets expanded and strong managers drove the organization and filled the gaps.  However, the organization stalled when the economy presented more challenges and as managers became disheartened, felt the lack of leadership, and withdrew.

This is just one example, but when a leader majors on minor things the outcome is very similar: leadership vacuum, less than optimal performance, and employee dissatisfaction.  So, why would a leader knowingly major on the minors? There are three major reasons this behavior occurs:

  • Pick the easier issue
  • Do what I know
  • Control as a necessity

Pick the easier issue

Some leaders gravitate toward majoring on the minors out of ease.  Minor issues are easier since they are much smaller in scope, less complex in nature, require less thought, and usually possess viable solutions.  Which is more stressful: being held accountable for making risky decisions in an uncertain environment or mediating a minor dispute in the office?  Literally, some leaders will attempt to fill his or her time with minor issues so it can be claimed that there is not time for the big issues.  Another common reason for selecting the easier issues is that it allows a leader to show success at decision-making with little chance of error or mistake.

Do what I know

Most leaders served in a lower level managerial position or capacity before taking on higher level leadership responsibilities.  Those methods that work for the manager are many times carried over into the new capacity and employed in a different situational context than the work group or unit.  This occurs due to the assumption that “the methods served me well before, so they should work well at this level also.”  Research as well as practical experience has shown that this assumption is not sound.  In the example above, the executive employed the same methods that made her successful at running projects at the organizational level.  Although the methods made her exceptional when managing projects, they hindered her success in the higher level position.

Control as a necessity

Some leaders have a strong need to control their environment including those that work for them.  It is not uncommon to have a friend or relative that struggles with control issues.  Those that require a controlled environment to feel comfortable tend to major on the minors since everything is important and the small things afford more opportunities for control.  This reason will be discussed further in the next post on Failure #8: I Need to Control the Environment to be Success.

Figure 1: Leadership's Average Use of Time

Figure 1: Leadership's Average Use of Time

In order to share the practical impact of majoring on the minors, here are the results of a recent survey of a mid-size employer on how their leaders spent their time.   Figure 1 captures the average time spent on major activities by their leadership team for the last year.  Surprisingly, more than half of the average leader’s time is being spent on meetings and other activities (55 percent).  When the respondents were asked to describe the other activities, many were minor activities.  Developing strategy, building staff capability, recruiting high performing team members, and improving operations total 20 percent or half of the time committed to meetings and less important activities.

Time is always going to be tight.  So, a successful leader has to focus on those things that pay the highest dividends:

  • Setting priorities
  • Ensuring goal attainment
  • Making important decisions
  • Building a team
  • Engaging employees
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