A recent HBR podcast talks about the need for knowledge workers to spend more time on things that really matter and less time on the multitude of things that are a lower priority yet take up most of the day. Although not presented as such, the podcast brings into focus a skill that is never stressed as core within programs for developing leaders and growing talent but is, in fact, about as important as any skill or competency. This is the ability to prioritize and organize work.
In today’s business environment, most important work for knowledge workers is done as project work, much of which is pursued in teams. Delivering with excellence and innovation on these projects is inevitably the top priority. Notwithstanding this imperative, well less that 50% of knowledge workers’ time is, on average, devoted to this endeavor. Instead, time is being spent attending meetings, responding to emails and navigating corporate politics — all much lower priority items. The backdrop, of course, is an economy that places an increasingly higher emphasis on productivity and which will require a major change in the way knowledge workers prioritize work.
Looking at this issue brings a whole new focus to manager training — a strong business focus vs. a pure talent management focus. Managers must quickly learn to empower their people to better prioritize work and must make themselves available to help where needed. To do this managers will need to be taught both consulting and coaching skills, both of which are severely lacking in today’s manager corps. It must be recognized that this will not be a one-size-fits-all approach. Different personality types will need to address the challenge in different ways, including by teaching knowledge workers to delegate things that are hard — energy depleting — to do, and allocating roles among team members intelligently to take into account personality differences. To make this possible, use of assessments that identify and explain personality types need to be employed broadly with knowledge workers.
There is little doubt that this approach to prioritization and redefining the role of the manager will have a very positive impact on employee engagement and on productivity. Imagine the impact on knowledge worker attitudes — yes, even Millennials — if managers can successfully lead in this new way!