E2E: 20/20

How to persist through unprecedented leadership challenges (without losing your mind in the process)

Note: This blog was originally published in CEOWORLD Magazine.

The zoom meeting with a few of my junior team members started out just fine. As fine as it can be when you are on Zoom meeting number 11th (or was it 12th?) of the day. Then it happened. Three of my four kids burst into my home office, excited to show me an art project. I struggled and failed to hit mute. My wife had interrupted my previous meeting not 20 minutes earlier, so I was admittedly already on edge. As I yelled at them to get out and quiet down, all in front of my understandably horrified employee, I couldn’t help thinking to myself: Am I being a terrible dad or a terrible business leader? In that moment, it felt like I was failing at both.

Business leadership is hard in the best of times. But right now might be the toughest time to run, and especially to launch, a successful company.

Not only are CEOs contending with all of the usual C-suite responsibilities, but now there’s also a global pandemic, the pressures of managing a newly distributed workforce and a significant dose of social upheaval thrown in the mix. We are living out scenarios never covered in business school or considered in even the most thorough business plans. Virtually overnight, many leaders had to learn how to implement extreme health and safety measures, as well as how to support employee engagement and performance remotely for the very first time, all while struggling to acclimate themselves to a new work-from-home setup.

This situation has been overwhelming and stressful for everyone. There will always be something that comes from out of nowhere to knock you off course. But a leader’s job is to ensure her business continues to run on all cylinders no matter what — even in the middle of a global health crisis, a struggling economy or a period of societal unrest. Right now leaders are getting “all of the above” and are being asked to do more with little time to figure it all out. How can leaders meet the challenges of the present moment and continue leading confidently through adversity?

When everything feels uncertain and out of control, the one thing you can control is between your ears. Some call it grit. Some call it stubbornness. I prefer simply persistence. A persistent mindset is the only thing that will keep your head above water despite the deluge around you. It will allow you to remain focused and keep plugging away at your business goals no matter what. But it won’t happen overnight — it takes daily practice and dedication.

Here are five simple ways to develop a persistent leadership mindset:

Prioritize self care

Many professionals may have hoped the recent shift to remote work would offer a little more flexibility. Goodbye commute, hello work-life balance. I’ll finally crack that novel I’ve been meaning to read. I’ll even be able to play with my kids more often. Except, that didn’t really happen. In fact, a recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that, in the aftermath of stay-at-home orders, workdays grew by 48.5 minutes and the number of meetings increased by 13 percent. We’re actually taking on more work and more stress, not less.

That’s why prioritizing self care is more important now than ever. Whether you enjoy meditation, running, reading, writing in a journal — whatever energizes and refreshes you, set aside time in your busy day just for you. You have my full permission to be selfish right now, not only for your own good, but for the benefit of your family and your team. Self care is imperative to your ability to persist and succeed as a leader.

Utilize Your Time Wisely

If you feel like time has no meaning lately, you’re not alone. The disruption to our regular routines has been warping our sense of time. Days blur into one another until, before you know it, an entire quarter has passed. But if it feels like each workday is really getting away from you lately, maybe it is. Are you being thoughtful about how you utilize your time? Here are a few things I recommend:

Use a simple “Eisenhower Matrix” to break down your priorities and separate what’s important, what can wait and what you need to completely remove from your plate.
Reevaluate your relationship with Zoom. (It’s not you, it’s me.) Not everything has to be a video conference. Sometimes a simple email or voice call will do just fine.
Put down your phone and step away from your laptop. Choose a time of day (4pm? 6pm? 8pm?) to disconnect from work and reconnect with yourself and your family.
Even though the lines between your career and personal life are blurring, you don’t have to be “on” all the time. Be purposeful and mindful with your time instead of allowing yourself to become overscheduled and maxed out.

Re-set Your Expectations, ASAP

I think we’d all love to flip a switch and poof: no more global pandemic. Then we’d have college football and movies again, and we’d all get to go back to work. That’s secretly what we’re hoping for, right? But here’s the thing: none of that stuff is happening any time soon. We’re not going back to normal. The sooner you can embrace this new reality, the better.

To persevere as a leader amidst chaos and adversity, it’s critical to reset your expectations as quickly as possible. The tide has already changed. You can either remain stagnant and let the water cover your head, or shift your mindset, start kicking and live to see another day. The most successful leaders will skip ahead, and do it fast. Fast forward your mind to get to the new reality, rather than hoping for a return to normalcy. That’s how you continue moving forward.

Equip Your Team to Persevere

Rarely has compassionate leadership been more essential than it is today. We’re all going through similar difficulties (or our own private hell, depending on who you ask). People everywhere are overworked, striving for balance and experiencing social withdrawal. Some employees might be dealing with health issues, while those with young children are massively stressed about the future of their children’s education, a burden that didn’t exist six months ago. If your team is crashing and burning, it’s tough to remain resilient as a leader.

Recognize what your people are going through and provide them with the extra support they require during this tumultuous time. In addition to approaching your interactions with greater empathy and compassion, create a framework within your organization that addresses these issues. Host open discussions about self-care strategies where team members can share ideas and discuss their own experiences. Go the extra mile to provide any sense of normalcy or connection, such as virtual team lunches, games or happy hours. Allow more flexible work schedules or perks for employees that continue meeting performance goals. In short, just give people a break.

Keep it All in Perspective

There’s a tendency in business leadership to speak in war analogies or in terms that imply “do or die” consequences. While business or financial outcomes might occasionally seem like the end of the world, the good news is, they are decidedly not. And thankfully, regardless of how serious a business issue may appear, it probably isn’t a matter of life or death.

A key leadership discipline is the ability to maintain a grounded perspective about what’s truly at stake while others are declaring the sky is falling. Yes, COVID-19 has real stakes. Yes, you should be focused and driven by performance goals. Yes, you should strive to ensure your company survives. But if you can keep a more realistic, pragmatic perspective, it will have a significant impact on your ability to remain calm and balanced in high-stress situations, and ensure your team stays that way too. At the end of the day, there are more important things than hitting your quarterly targets.

Business leadership is a marathon, not a sprint. There will always be unforeseen challenges ahead. You can’t control that — but you can control your mindset. Making self care a priority – and giving yourself and your team a break – is more important than ever. A persistent mindset will give you endurance when you need it most and allow you to power on past any obstacles.

E2E: Scale

I Am the CEO, Why Am I Confused About How I Should Spend My Time?

How a simple 2 x 2 matrix can help you become a better entrepreneur by understanding the key differences between efficiency and effectiveness.

A recently published New York Times article talked about how our brain tricks us into doing less important tasks, shining a light on how complicated the delicate art of time management can be.

You’d think that, living in an era of technology-enabled efficiency like we do, it would be simple to manage our time. We have time management apps to handle deadlines, reminders, workflows and all the nitty gritty details of delegation. But most of these solutions are focused on EFFICIENCY (doing things right), not on EFFECTIVENESS (doing the right things).

As an entrepreneur, this problem is multiplied exponentially. How and where you spend your time is more valuable than anything you have in your control. Before you ever get to automated workflows and collaborative calendars, you first need to figure out the basics of delegation.

I struggled with this topic as a young entrepreneur and tried every trick imaginable. I found myself wasting hours on tasks someone else could do better, perhaps because I enjoyed doing them. Other tasks I mindlessly handed over to others in the spirit of delegation, even though I was uniquely qualified to complete the task myself.

Unless you are acting as a sole proprietor, the challenge of balancing time management, capital utilization and strategic priorities is a never ending tug of war. And as your business starts to grow and scale, this tug of war becomes increasingly complex. You are faced with countless things to do with limited capital, time and team members.

Michael Smerklo, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Next Coast Ventures

At some point along my entrepreneurial journey—about the time that I was about to either get fired or committed to a mental institute—one of my mentors shared with me a simple four-step process based on the Eisenhower Matrix that helped me with this never-ending dilemma of time management. In fact, this exercise became an annual obsession for me as I sought the optimal formula for entrepreneurial success – in a growth company, the CEO’s job changes almost every three to four months

Step One – Use a 2×2 matrix to figure out what you are uniquely qualified to do

First, create the following 2×2 grid, with the y-axis describing your skill (either good or bad) and the x-axis describing your passion (love or hate) and list a couple of business functions that fit in the various boxes. The key is to figure out exactly what box a particular skill should fit in.

Here are the high level definitions in a bit more detail:

  • Upper Right – I am good / I love it: What task are you, as CEO, really good at doing? Not the things you think you are good at, but rather things that you have verifiable proof that you are uniquely qualified to complete. The key here is not only to determine what you are good at, but to assess how much you enjoy this part of your job.
  • Upper Left – I am good / I hate it: What are the tasks that you are actually quite accomplished at (naturally or from prior training) but bring you no pleasure? For example, I started my career as a CPA so I was actually very good at the financial part of the business, but I dreaded the annual budgeting process. The key here is to feel okay with this box too—not one loves every aspect of the job, not even the CEO.
  • Lower Right – I suck / I love it: This is a pretty dangerous quadrant and one that is likely the hardest to have an accurate read. Do you love engaging in deep product reviews … but flunked out of CS early on in college? Do you see yourself as a natural born sales person, but have never carried a quota in your life? Look long and hard at this box — as it is really, really is an important exercise in self awareness.
  • Lower Left – I suck / I hate it: Usually this seems to be an easy box to fill out, but this quadrant can be a real trap for a lot of entrepreneurs. The key is to make sure you really do suck at the function versus just don’t enjoy it. It is really easy to confuse these two emotions (enjoyment versus proficiency). Challenge yourself to make sure you aren’t actually quite good at something you don’t enjoy or vice versa.

Step 2 – List your company’s top priorities for the next six to twelve months

This should be pretty straight forward from your budget or business plan. Think of the four to five things that if completed will really move the needle for your business. Do you need 20 paying customers in the next 12 months? Is launching the next version of your product critical to moving the business forward? Or maybe your key outcome is centered around international expansion?

As a guide, these should be the tied to key metrics that you have shared with your board or that you have decided are critical for your next round of funding. Basically, your goal here is to list the four to five things that really are “make it or break it” for your business in the next 12 months. Here is an actual list I kept on my desk as a CEO—I called them the “Things That Matter” or TTM.

Step 3 – Compare your grid with your top priorities

Next, take a quick look at your grid. Take special note of how many of the top priorities for the business fall into the upper right quadrant of your grid. Here is an image of my grid from the early days of my CEO tenure:

By reviewing this grid against your top priorities, you can quickly determine where the gaps are and make decisions as to what you will focus on personally. You can also see where some big gaps might be and these should be your immediate focus as it relates to your team.

If your top goal is to acquire 10 new customers, but you hate selling, you better have a great sales leader on your executive team. If not, get hiring ASAP! On the other hand, if “get MVP in the market” is your key goal and you just happen to have spent five years in Product Management at Google, chances are that you can drive this outcome without a big external hire.

Step 4 – Allocate your time based on the grid

One mantra I learned early on was another simple concept: It is far easier to use the skills you already possess than to acquire new ones. In short, spend your time playing to your strengths and hire a team to overcome your weaknesses. For the grid, this means spending as much of your time in the upper right quadrant (good, love) and building out a team for the other areas of the matrix.

By using this quick four step process – and comparing it to your top business priorities – you can quickly see what areas you should engage in (even temporarily) and what areas you should quickly seek help in. This is, after all, the essence of effective delegation and time management.

NOTE: This post was originally published on Richtopia.

E2E: Scale

The 3 Mistakes I Made Learning To Manage Time

This post originally appeared on on January 4, 2018 where Michael Smerklo is a regular contributor.

As a CEO, smart time management is critical to success. Let me tell you a dirty little secret: It doesn’t always come naturally, especially to entrepreneurs that become executives.

When I was just starting out as an executive, I found myself struggling with a seemingly infinite to-do list and not enough hours in the day to get everything done. I was determined to break the cycle. With practice, self-awareness and a few strategic adaptations, I learned how to correct what used to be my biggest time management mistakes:

Mike Smerklo, co-founder and managing director of Next Coast Ventures

1. Wanting to spend time doing what I’m good at, when I should have been delegating.

By definition, CEOs are doers. We are committed to our company’s core purpose and are ready to work hard to advance our goals. It excites us, it invigorates us and it imbues us with a hero’s mentality: the idea that we are the only one that can bring the necessary experience and the perspective to successfully complete a task. And we’re willing to work ourselves ragged to do it.

For example, when it came to going on sales calls, I always found myself ready to jump on a plane to fly across the country to attend a sales meeting. I liked them, I was energized by them, and I felt like I was adding value to the company. After some reflection, though, I realized that just because I have that skill doesn’t mean that others don’t. I was spending a ton of time doing something that in most cases, I could have delegated to a trusted, qualified employee. My own time could be better spent elsewhere.

Now, I focus on tasks that I am uniquely qualified to do. When my instinct is to say yes to yet another commitment, I stop and question myself to determine whether it is simply something I enjoy, or whether there is someone else who is equally skilled for the job. It also means knowing when to say no, even when you may disappoint someone – or yourself.

2. Staying busy instead of staying effective.

It is easy to fall into ‘the busy trap,’ as described by Tim Kreider in his article for the New York Times. It’s where we run around talking about how busy we are, but not really putting a lot of thought into where all of our time is going and why. The temptation here is clear: as long as we’re always doing something, no matter what that something may be, we can tell ourselves that we are productive. We find comfort that we can pat ourselves on the back for ticking boxes off of our seemingly never-ending checklist.

Photo courtesy of Steve Buissinne, Pixabay.

But what if we’re ticking off the wrong boxes? Staying busy doesn’t necessarily make us productive, and it certainly doesn’t mean we’re being effective. It usually just drives us to chase tasks that are easily within reach instead of the ones that are most important.

I often used to find myself seeking that rush of instant gratification, so I’d send yet another e-mail or even decide to fly and visit some small customer just to feel like I was getting something done, even if it wasn’t necessarily the most important priority.

Lately, I’ve been able to overcome that urge for immediacy by starting my day meditating for 20 minutes. This practice allows me to clarify my thoughts and helps me to take a step back away from the hustle and bustle. After meditating, while I’m still in a clear state of mind, I write down the two or three most important things that I want to get accomplished for the day. This helps to hold me accountable, making sure that I don’t trick my mind into believing I’m productive when I’m really just busy.

3. Using procrastination to avoid tasks I didn’t like.

Even after I started sticking to my carefully crafted list of the most critical tasks to accomplish, I found that the task that I was most dreading somehow always made its way to the bottom. I’d start with the easiest or most comfortable task, and save the most uncomfortable one for last.

Sometimes, it was something I was good at, but didn’t particularly enjoy. Like budgeting, for instance. Other times, it was something that I didn’t want to face, like firing an employee who I liked, but who wasn’t producing. Either way, I realized that there’s a thin line between sensibly putting something off and procrastinating, and that I was often guilty of the latter.

I discovered a two-step process to help me overcome my own delaying tactics. First, I began to rank-order my list in terms of priority and made myself tackle the tasks in order. If something was at the top, I had to suck it up and get it done. I wouldn’t let myself make excuses. If for some reason I decided that it wasn’t suitable for me to be the one to execute one of the tasks at hand – see mistake number one – I could then make the decision to delegate. Either way, my habit now revolves around not letting myself move on without addressing the task at hand.

Time is money, and so much more

There’s an overused saying in business that ‘time is money.’

But it’s more than that. It’s sanity. It’s self-satisfaction. It’s freedom. A better, more mindful approach to time management helps us get our priorities straight, leaving us more fulfilled both in the workplace – and in life itself.