Why Time Management Systems Miss The Point (It's An Emotional Thing)

Apr 15 2014, 6:35am CDT | by

Time management is an important thing. Sometimes it is the only thing. But we don’t understand what it’s about. I learned this during my time as a turnaround CFO.

I was the one they called when the company was in trouble and the CFO had been fired. In most respects I was a woeful CFO – my knowledge of financial reporting was 20 years out of date and my knowledge of tax even sketchier. This gave me a low F in subjects which seemed to occupy 80% of most CFOs’ time. But I had a super power

I was really good at deciding on priorities and sticking to them. This had been the downfall of my predecessors. They had tried to do too many things, and failed at all of them. The most egregious example of this was in one handover period when I spent a mind-numbing afternoon with my outgoing predecessor and the financial accountant going line by line through the annual financial statements (it was a private equity situation, so nobody had the slightest interest in these). It seemed bizarre to me that any CFO would want to spend time on this tedious business. Firstly, the financial accountant and the auditors between them had it well in hand,  but more importantly we were bleeding cash and if we didn’t solve that problem we were doomed.

The reason of course was comfort zones. The soon-to-be-ex-CFO felt comfortable with financial reporting in a way that he didn’t with big, scary, messy problems like cashflow. So that is where he spent his time.

He left, I took over. I went through his diary and cancelled most of his commitments. I pulled out three priorities and, with a mixture of ruthlessness, deviousness and willingness to offend, stuck to them. In three months the situation was stabilised. In eighteen there was a successful exit.

Now the point is that no amount of time management systems, software, organisers or 2×2 matrices would have saved my predecessor. What would have saved him was a willingness to do what felt uncomfortable.

So here is my system. Look for what makes you feel uncomfortable but is important, and make sure you do it. Here is a quick checklist which will help you identify such matters:

  • Complex strategic questions ( if you enjoy operating and being active);
  • Mundane operational issues like  cashflow, cost control or reducing waste (if you enjoy strategic thinking);
  • Difficult conversations with people you have been avoiding;
  • Things you haven’t done before;
  • Things you aren’t confident you can do;
  • Not doing things that other people want you to do, but which you know will get in the way of the above.

“Easier said than done,” you are probably thinking, and that is exactly the point. Good time management is hard. But you might as well suck it up and get on with it. The alternative is that one day the CEO calls you into their office and introduces you to your successor, someone like me. You would like that even less.

Alastair Dryburgh is author of the forthcoming book Evolve: free yourself from your inner caveman.


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