When I was transitioning from the start up phase of my web design company to managing a growing firm, I was often overwhelmed by how many things there were to do! Between doing some of the actual work (which had become an exclusively night and weekend activity), to managing employees, to hiring, to marketing, to doing the books, to evaluating and improving our systems and processes—there was barely time to breathe. Sometimes I’d come across some good business advice but along with it came the dread of adding one more task to the bottom of an ever increasing to do list. The the worst thing in those days was the feeling that I was no longer leading my firm, but rather stuck in a reactionary mode.
Whenever I could, I’d try to find a few minutes to get out of the office, turn off my cell phone, and hit a local coffee shop with a pencil and pad of paper (yes, paper) and just think. Where were we headed as a company? What were our biggest challenges? What were the most pressing items on that to-do list? What on that list could I delegate? Those brief thinking breaks were helpful, but more often than not, when I’d got back to the office I’d return to all sorts of new emergencies that demanded my attention. Those ideas on my pad would rarely get acted on. Finding the time to think was a precious commodity in those days. And even more rare was finding the time to act on those ideas.
If you’re caught in this cycle you might thinking even now, “I’m not sure I even have time to finish reading this article.” Let me encourage you to eke out a few more minutes to finish.
The Biggest Barrier to Leading Well
The biggest barrier owners of growing design firms face is finding time to lead by thinking. And when you are starved for time to think, you might make many other leadership mistakes. Mistakes that lead to bad decisions, hasty hires, poor marketing, desperation in sales and marketing which leads to bad clients (who will gobble up all the remaining time you might have).
So if you’re going to lead your firm well, your first priority needs to be to get control of your time. Now admittedly, that’s a simple thing to say, but much harder to achieve. (And, of course, getting the time to think doesn’t guarantee that you’ll always make good decisions, but I can guarantee that if you don’t find time to think, you will make bad ones.)
The Starting Place for Securing Your Time
So your first leadership priority has to be to secure your time. And among your most important tactics in accomplishing this goal is giving attention to your firm’s bottom line. You see, if you’re caught in a perpetual time crunch, you might be able cut away for a short business retreat, but unless you fix the underlying problems, you won’t have gained long term control of your time. The gains of an occasional retreat will be soon lost under the tyranny of the urgent.
This is why one of the first things you should set your mind on, once you’ve grabbed some time, and is the condition of your finances. Creatives often don’t give careful attention to their books, in part because money is not at the top of your priority lists. Rather your priorities tend to be doing great work, doing work that makes a difference, and enjoying your work. But when you connect the dots between your profit margin and your time margins, you’ll probably gain a greater incentive to pursue your profitability. Profitability secures and sustains your ability to lead by thinking.
Your first priority needs to be to get your time back. The first steps are looking at your financial performance and benchmarks. Most likely this information won’t be very encouraging. It will expose problems which will need to be fixed. But won’t that lead right back where we started? An ever growing list of new items to tackle when you can’t even keep up with your email inbox?
Yes, you will identify more issues and problems, but at least you’re heading in the right direction and motivated to get control of your time.
“But where do I go from there?” you say.
Glad you asked! And since you’re reading my article and we’re not actually talking I can’t say for sure. But from my experience the next thing to carefully think through is usually your marketing. You can read a couple of my previous articles on this subject (here and here). But honestly after getting set in the right direction, your path and priorities will be specific to your situation. And it’s at this point that it might be best to stop reading and get help with your marketing.
Since your time for thinking is coming at a step premium right now it might make sense to get some experienced help in deciding where to invest the time you do have in the best way. Talking to a professional mentor will help you avoid dead ends, and wasted directions.