Who owns your day? The answer may not be what you think
  • leadership
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Who owns your day? The answer may not be what you think

Ask any experienced HR pro or line manager in an organization what his or her most important work asset is, and the response is likely to be, “My time.”

That’s a great answer. Time is, indeed, a non-renewable resource that successful managers need to make wise use of.

And if you went on to ask the same person, “Who owns your day?” the answer would no doubt be, “I do, of course.”

But is that always true? Unfortunately, no. To illustrate what we mean, let’s imagine the following scenario:

‘Got a minute?’
HR manager Liz Boyer is working on a report for her CEO on the impact that anti-discrimination and harassment training has had on employee disputes. The report is critically important, because it will help justify the training budget Liz has requested for the coming year.

Now Liz hears a knock at her door, and raises her head.

“Got a minute, Liz?” says the visitor, who is Steve Nix, the warehouse manager. Steve has had a series of problems with the company’s health insurer, and he wants to talk to her about yet another one.

Sighing to herself, Liz says, “Sure, come in.”

Forty-five minutes later, Steve’s problem seems to have been sorted out. But now Liz is behind on the report, and it looks like she’s going to have to stay after hours to finish it. And she’ll be tired, and as a result who knows whether the report will be as clear as it needs to be.

It happens a lot
To tell the truth, this isn’t the first time that something of the sort has happened to Liz. In fact, she often ends up taking work home because she spent too much of her day handling seemingly urgent got-a-minute-type interruptions like Steve’s (and of course, they never take just a minute).

So who owns Liz’s day. Liz? Nope. She has ceded ownership of that precious resource to people who don’t know her priorities, don’t care how many extra hours she works, and have no stake in the success of her career.

Doesn’t sound like a good bargain, does it?

Now, we’re not asking for a show of hands. But if you feel you aren’t always maintaining ownership of your day, you may want to consider asking yourself three questions when people come to you with ever-so-urgent problems that “can’t wait.” Unless the problem elicits a Yes answer to at least one of the questions, it almost certainly can wait.

1. Does this benefit customers?
Suppose Steve’s problem had been a different one: One of his workers was late – again – that morning, with the result that when a customer sent a truck to pick up a scheduled order, it wasn’t ready. When the customer called Steve a couple of hours later, he was hopping mad and threatening to cancel the order entirely.

If Steve’s “got a minute” issue had been what to do about the errant employee, and Liz asked herself Question No. 1, she would have reasoned – correctly – that this was indeed something that warranted interrupting her report.

But Steve’s health insurance claim didn’t meet that standard.

2. Does this benefit the company?
Maybe if you felt like stretching a point you could say that fixing Steve’s problem benefited the company, at least indirectly.

But if Liz had asked herself Question No. 2 when Steve came in, she probably would have answered, no, it doesn’t.

It might have been different if Steve’s issue had been, say, a problem with health insurance coverage that was affecting a number of employees. Addressing that problem would benefit the company, and again Liz might have wanted to break off her report to hear about it.

3. Does this help me improve and/or advance my career?
Clearly, solving Steve’s health insurance problem did nothing to advance Liz’s career. To the contrary, it prevented her from working on something that was a career-enhancer – the report justifying her anti-discrimination training activities in the eyes of the CEO.

But take a different kind of issue: In a conversation with his brother-in-law, who works at a nearby company, Steve hears about a new health insurance product that delivers benefits Liz’s current insurer doesn’t offer – for about the same price.

He comes to tell Liz about it and asks if she’s “got a minute.” Understanding immediately that she’ll be helping her career if she improves the company’s insurance plan at no additional cost, Liz says yes, she does.

So if you feel you’ve lost control of your day to the got-a-minuteers, try asking these three questions. They’ll help you regain it.

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