A few years ago, stuck in the Dallas airport, executive Nigel Dessau decided to check out the business fare in the bookstore and was dismayed. All the books seemed aimed at people who were king or queen in their office – or eager to achieve that status. They didn't seem to speak to people like him who were just trying to get through their day. "We don't want to be CEOs. We want to be more effective at our job," he said in an interview.
Mr. Dessau, who has worked with a variety of companies over the years and is currently chief marketing officer of Massachusetts-based Stratus Technologies , decided to speak to those left out of the books, establishing a website, The 3 Minute Mentor, offering short podcasts on everything from managing a budget to building a network.
The best of those items are now in print, in the book Become a 21st Century Executive. The title sounds fancy, but he's still focused on the basics, for individuals in the work trenches. "So many people muddle through their careers. With simple advice you can accelerate and stop muddling through," he said in the interview.
That means, of course, managing your time effectively, starting with the daily deluge of e-mail. He suggests:
Don't use your e-mail to do your thinking for you. In a rush, we often pour out a long screed. But the recipient doesn't need to know everything you are thinking. Do that beforehand, and keep to the essentials. If your best thinking comes while writing, save the e-mail and edit it down later.
Make your request clear. If your request isn't in the first line or two of your e-mail, assume it won't be read. An e-mail that doesn't present a clear request for action at all will likely be set aside to be dealt with later, and you won't get what you wanted on time, if at all.
Limit emotion of all types. When he managed a team of about 400 people, at least once a week a commotion would brew, with one part of the team upset about something another part of the team had done. Inevitably, it would be tracked down to an e-mail that had been misinterpreted. And it's most likely to be misinterpreted if you express emotions. "Humour, sarcasm and the like don't work in e-mail. So stick to the facts," he says.
Use the "save" button before the "send" button. Just because you have written an e-mail doesn't mean you have to send it immediately, even if e-mail invites immediacy. His mother used to tell him to count to 10 before he said or did something he might regret. The "save" button is your way to count to 10 when irritated by an e-mail or office event. Come back later and ensure it's what you want to say.
Use the phone. Often we aren't honest in e-mails. You can get to the heart of matters and have the quick back-and-forth interchange complex issues require by phone rather than by e-mail.
To improve your productivity, he suggests starting with meetings:
Commit to shorter meetings. He aims to book 30-minute meetings rather than assuming it must be one hour because the Outlook calendar seems best suited to that time frame. "I have about 30 meetings a week. If each one was an hour, I would lose three quarters of my week," he notes. And he begins each one by zooming in on the central point with these words, "Why are we gathered here?" or "What do we want to achieve together?"
Write your to-dos in a different place than your meeting notes. Too often action items from meetings get missed because they are hard to pick out from all the jumbled notes of the session. When a to-do arises, write it in a separate section.
Design a work flow for your e-mail. Keep your inbox to a minimum by setting up a system for e-mails you can't immediately tussle with. The first two folders at the top of his e-mail are "AA – Action" for items he will need to act on soon, and "AA – To Read" for items he can save for perusing later, usually on a flight. The AA designation helps them rise to the top of his folder list.
Have an effective filing system for your computer. Similarly, you need a folder system for filing documents by subject matter, rather than date. Too often when he asks people for information, they are flummoxed trying to unearth the document.
Delegate and escalate. Know when something that comes to you can and should be handled by a subordinate – and delegate. Also know when something you are handling requires advice from your boss, and escalate that item immediately by talking to him or her.
None of that is earth-shattering. But some of it may be new to you. And lots we fail to do, as we muddle through the day. Committing to these practices, he feels, will make you less stressed and more effective.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter