The best Finance leaders choose important over urgent

By Andy Burrows

I’m continuing a series where I’m trying to show the power of some key ‘soft’ skills that Finance business partners should learn, and CFOs should have.

Today, I hope to show you how to make time to focus on what’s important. This is not simply prioritisation. And whilst you may feel that you’ve heard most of it before, I’m going to finish up by showing you why your prioritisation is probably not working in your daily organisation.

What I’ve said so far is that the core of the behavioural skills you need are all about “personal effectiveness”. If you can’t lead yourself personally, how can you lead or influence others as a Finance business partner or CFO?

There is a real difference between average Finance business partners and the high performing, highly effective Finance business partners and CFOs.

Average Finance business partners continually complain about not having time to do business partnering because they’ve got too much number crunching to do. On the other hand, the highly effective Finance business partners seem to have no trouble having the right conversations and gaining the confidence of the business without breaking a sweat! They even have time to come on LinkedIn and tell you about their experiences!

And I’ve been saying that the secret – because I haven’t seen many people saying this until now – is in learning the skills that make up “personal effectiveness”. That’s the starting point.

The first thing you need is the skill of the “can do” attitude – an understanding that you are able to make choices and effect change in your life.

And in my last article I went on to talk about the skill of setting destination and direction.

The skill I want to talk about today is all about being able to take action towards your destination.

Common problems for Finance business partners

I mentioned earlier the Finance business partners who complain of not having enough time to do the business partnering part of their job.

And, to be honest, it’s a general problem – not having enough time I mean. That’s what we find our ourselves saying quite a lot. “I wish I had time for xyz!”

But here’s the thing. My wife has this one worked out! She says to me, “why didn’t you do xyz?

I reply, “Oh, I didn’t have time!”

And then she nails it – “it’s not that you didn’t have time. You just chose to do something else instead!”

That can be quite embarrassing when you chose to play video games rather than do one of the many household jobs that have needed doing for weeks! “Didn’t have time”, doesn’t really come across well then!

But what it shows is that the challenge isn’t really time management. It’s self-management. Time needs no management. It just happens. What you choose to do in the time, and your efficiency and effectiveness in using time, is the issue.

The four quadrants

One of the most useful ways to think is in terms of a matrix that looks like this:

(By the way, this is not an “Eisenhower Matrix”. I’m taking this version from Stephen Covey’s awesome classic, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.)

The two factors that can be used to describe an activity are urgency and importance.

Urgent things require immediate attention, whether they’re important or not. The person standing at your desk wanting to ask you a question, the phone ringing, some emails, text messages.

Importance, on the other hand, is to do with where it fits with what you’re trying to achieve. If something isn’t important, it’s because it doesn’t get you anywhere that you value as a worthwhile destination, when all is said and done, urgent or not.

I think we’ve all experienced times when we spend most of our time in the first quadrant, where things are urgent and important. This is crisis management and, if it isn’t rectified, leads to stress, firefighting, more firefighting, and eventually burnout.

When we’re predominantly in quadrant 1, we sometimes come out for a break into quadrant 4, because it gives us the feeling of doing stuff without the pressure. We wouldn’t dare touch quadrant 2, because it feels too difficult.

Some people spend a lot of time in quadrant 3, thinking they’re in quadrant 1! In reality, they’re probably just spending a lot of time in other people’s meetings, answering text messages, emails and phones in between (and often during the meetings too). They’re reactive, letting other people determine their priorities. They don’t plan much, and often feel out of control and like a victim.

People who spend their time mainly in quadrants 3 and 4 (i.e. doing unimportant activities) are on the road to nowhere!... or being fired!

Quadrant 2 is the key to effective self-management.

Heard it all before?

Unfortunately, I’ve come across people who seem to think that just because they can use the terminology it means they’re being as effective in their self- and team-management as they can. “Yeah I know your project is important to the department, but we need to get through all our urgent and important stuff before we can get to your important non-urgent stuff.”

But it doesn’t work like that.

Effective people spend most of their time intentionally on quadrant 2 activities, and minimise the size and impact of quadrant 1 through good planning and risk management.

That’s the point. These activities are not pressing on you. If you’re going to do them, you have deliberately start them and deliberately continue and complete them – by choice, and act of independent will!

Schedule important activities intentionally

How do effective people schedule their time to make sure they give attention to the much-neglected quadrant 2 (important but not urgent)?

What I’ve learnt is to spend time at the start of every week planning the week (not just at the start of each day). And, yes, it takes self-discipline to set aside that time. But there are 96 hours in a week when you’re not asleep. If you can’t find 0.25 to 0.50 of an hour each week to make your week more productive and make yourself more effective, then you might as well give up!!

And there’s a two-stage process:

  1. For each of the roles you have in life (wife, mother, manager, individual, netball player, etc), think of two or three important things you want to achieve in the next seven days, and record them as goals.
  2. Schedule time to make progress on them in your planner or calendar, either as appointments or priorities.

Obviously, there are many factors involved in finding appropriate times for various types of quadrant 2 activities. You may need a quiet place for some activities, a phone line for others, the internet for others, just a laptop for others. You may want to minimise travel, or there may be things you can best schedule into travel time (audio books, podcasts, etc).

Thinking about all this in advance makes it more likely you will actually do it.

But you still have to be flexible. Sometimes days don’t turn out as planned, and maybe you have to change your schedule. It’s not the end of the world.

As Stephen Covey says, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

From crisis management to effective self-management

If you’re stuck in the vicious circle of everything being urgent, and you’re constantly working long hours with tight deadlines, one idea to break out of the cycle and take control is to identify the quadrant 3 and 4 activities (i.e. non-important) you may be doing. Then you can start to replace that with spending some time focusing on quadrant 2.

As you spend more time on the forward-thinking activities in quadrant 2, the urgent crises of quadrant 1 should become less frequent, and you will spend more of your time achieving the important results you really want to, in keeping with your mission, your values and vision.

But what this really highlights is that in order to do the important things you really feel will make a difference in your life, and in your work, you have to choose to say “no” to other activities, which some people may consider urgent (like answering their text messages and phonecalls).

But why isn’t it working?

Well, you can see that this is all common-sense stuff. It’s not particular to the Finance audience I regularly address. It’s not particular to Finance leadership, CFOs or Finance business partners.

It is a critical skill to learn, though, as Finance professionals, Finance business partners and Finance leaders.

It’s not uncommon, however, to be dissatisfied with the results. Maybe you’ve tried such things and think you’ve failed? And I think we have a particular lesson to learn here as Finance people.

You see, most people think that if this technique doesn’t work well for them, there’s a problem with the way they’re doing it. Perhaps they lack the self-discipline? Perhaps they are too weak to say “no” to the non-important stuff?

But, in actual fact, it turns out on reflection, to be the fact that what is driving us and motivating us is not strong enough. We have not reflected deeply enough on the values and purpose that give us the motivation that leads to our personal mission – the destination and direction I was talking about in my last article.

And it’s the congruence of our weekly goals with our personal mission and values that gives those goals importance to us.

And I made the point in that article that we need to be self-critical when it comes to our motivation.

For example, if your personal mission is to make your business partners happy, then you’re not going to spend much time in quadrant 2, because you’re making your goals and priorities depend on the reaction of others. You’ll be forever reacting to their needs and spend all of your time in quadrants 1 and 3.

But if you were to rephrase that in terms of being a good Finance business partner (the focus here is on you and what you can control, rather than on external responses you can’t control), then you’d be able to say “no” to the “urgent” quadrant 3 requests of even your non-Finance contacts so that you can be a better Finance business partner.

The particular lesson I want Finance business partners, CFOs, Finance leaders, in fact anyone in Finance, to learn, however, is to spend more time on mission, vision, purpose and values – the destination and direction from my last article.

If we want the power to be able to say “no” to competing priorities and focus on the important, then we need a “bigger ‘yes’ burning inside” (Stephen Covey).

We have to really believe in our principles and our values and the source of our motivation.

And the reason I particularly direct this at Finance leaders is because we’re not very good at it!

From my experience with CFOs and senior Finance leadership teams, we really do just pay lip service to purpose, vision and mission.

We assume that because we’re accountants we must have been somehow brainwashed by our qualifying bodies to know what we’re all about in our work in business! Or we write it off as “consultant-speak”! Or we roll the eyes in a way that says, “that’s namby pamby stuff for people in Marketing. Fine for them. We’ll just get on with our work!”

We have to change this culture, and become purpose-driven. We have to develop the skill to set the destination and direction, as well as the skill to organise ourselves to follow the direction and reach the destination.

We cannot afford to neglect the ‘soft’ skills that start with “personal effectiveness” if we want to be good Finance business partners, and to become the great leaders that CFOs are supposed to be!

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