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How to Ruthlessly Prioritize When It Hits the Fan

Kendra Kinnison
May 30, 2017 · 6 min read

“Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” — Mike Tyson

In mid-April, we had a planned retirement for one of our six Directors. As part of our succession planning, another Director was to absorb these responsibilities with a focus on developing the team. Less than two hours after that party, a third Director shared with me that he was leaving.

Our senior leadership team had just shrunk by a third. And we were headed into our busiest season of the year with several projects that needed to be completed quickly.

If there were a textbook description of what it looks like when it hits the fan, this would be it.

To say that I felt overwhelmed would be the tip of a giant iceberg. But curling up in the fetal position wasn’t an option, so I needed to find a way forward. As I took it day by day, this framework emerged.

Oddly enough, I think it’s working. I didn’t fall apart, and neither did the team. We’re also on track with our key milestones.

Without further ado, here’s one approach for when it hits the fan.

Step One: Do what it takes to protect your health.

We’ve all heard this, but I really wasn’t sure what it meant exactly. I understood that getting sick or burned out and reducing the leadership team even further was not a good plan. So I decided to focus on two priorities — sleep and exercise.

For sleep, I gave myself a bedtime, with few exceptions on workdays. I decided on 8:30/9:00pm (for reasons explained below) and stuck to it. I’ve missed out on lots of playoff basketball and haven’t seen any of my favorite shows. Other than that, it hasn’t been much of a change.

For exercise, I decided that I would commit to 30 minutes of movement every day. I prefer swimming, but sometimes my shoulder isn’t happy or I’m feeling exhausted. I can always walk, especially with motivational music or an inspirational interview in my headphones. To reinforce my goal, I took all of my “get ready” stuff to my locker at the gym. I literally have to go there in the morning.

As a somewhat unintended side effect, my nutrition has also improved. I’m planning and preparing more of my meals as opposed to eating out. Mostly, I think this is because of the structure reinforced by the other two habits.

Step Two: Do what it takes to be positive.

Shortly after this transition, we had a memorial for a team member that had been the “face” of our organization. Well into her golden years, she lived fully and embraced adventure. Through the tears, I recommitted to following her example of living joyously. Bitterness wasn’t going to be an option, but this was another principle that’s easier said than done.

For me, it turns out that waking up extra early was essential. Having time to do the things I enjoy — reading and swimming — made me happier. And it’s helpful to feel “ahead” of the day. After talking to my accountability partner, I decided on 4:30am (from a usual 5:30/6:00) start.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention another habit that seems to be making a difference in this area — cold water plunges. Certainly talk to your doctor and do your homework, but 2–3 minutes seems to make a huge impact in mood and in reducing overall achiness.

Step Three: Do what it takes to understand.

When I accepted the General Manager position in 2013, I did so with one caveat — that we would add a position for a Director of Facilities. It was the one area of the business I did not know well, and we had a thirty year-old oceanside property. Salt air and high winds make for all sorts of fun challenges.

Making the choice to absorb (at least temporarily) the responsibilities of this position did not come lightly. In fact, it terrified me.

I made a list of what I understood to be the priorities and open projects, and reviewed them with each of our team leaders and technical consultants. I asked lots of questions that revealed my naiveté. I made a list of the terms and techniques I didn’t understand, and studied them in the evenings.

I decided to be upfront and honest about what I didn’t know. I also committed to learn as quickly as possible, so that I wouldn’t be a liability or a bother. It’s challenging to be that vulnerable and risk being labeled as incompetent. But that’s less risky than proceeding blindly and pretending to have knowledge I didn’t. The first step to understanding is acknowledging where the gaps are.

Step Four: Do what it takes to comfort the team.

My team was stretched to complete projects before our occupancy soars, and now they have a boss that admits to not knowing much about their area. I’m sure that could be uncomfortable and awkward. I knew I’d need to be intentional about creating the confidence needed to move forward.

I decided to share a few stories of when we had been in similar situations. Over the last six years, I’d been the interim Director for three other areas. In two of those cases, I’d also known very little beforehand about the day-to-day operations of those departments. We survived the transitions, and often used it as an opportunity to make improvements.

I also decided to stay very present. I’ve adapted to the department’s existing meeting schedule. I’ve kept myself available for impromptu conversations or walkthroughs, even though it required opting out of community or social activities. (Given our oceanfront location, a lunch can take over two hours because of commute times.)

Step Five: Do what it takes to get the job done.

All the healthy conversations and homework are a good start, but the real measure is whether the department is able to perform effectively. This episode served as another reminder that leadership is at the intersection of accepting full responsibility and recognizing that you can “do” very little as an individual contributor.

To move forward, we must have good systems and project plans, and align those with the team members with the skills to actually do the work. The long-term strategy, week planning, and daily execution rhythms are all essential. Omitting a planning or communication step quickly correlates with missed opportunity.

I also think the sequence matters, both in the big picture and daily flow.

  • Step One: Do what it takes to protect your health.

As it turns out, tiny iterations of this process repeat themselves on a daily basis. It’s important that I get through steps 1 to 3 early enough in the morning that our Stand Up meeting can fulfill step 4 and set the roadmap for step 5.

Since I’m serving in the coordinating leadership role, if I’m in a funk or not prepared, we’re delayed in getting to the priority work. That was a nuance I’m not sure I fully appreciated until this experience. And it gives me much more purpose and determination in keeping to my morning routine.

Now it’s your turn.

Have you ever experienced a critical leadership event? How did you approach it?

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image source: flickr.com/syntopia

Special thanks to Niklas Goeke, Rob Filardo, and Joe Bauer for reading early drafts and making this better.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most…

Kendra Kinnison

Written by

General Manager, @portroyalresort. Leadership and Resilience Coach. Writer. Motorcycle racer. Basketball fan.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Kendra Kinnison

Written by

General Manager, @portroyalresort. Leadership and Resilience Coach. Writer. Motorcycle racer. Basketball fan.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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