Put Important Things First_4195117_XS - CThe names in this article have been changed to protect the guilty; the innocent are on their own!

A number of years ago the CEO of a large company taught a few of his executives an important lesson about prioritizing responsibilities and behaviors.  The moral and lesson of this story was ultimately taught throughout the entire company, as the legend of the experiences was re-told to literally tens of thousands of employees.

Although I was not personally a first-hand witness to the teaching experience, the CEO’s Administrative Assistant, whom I will call Gayle, was and related it to me.  The CEO scheduled an important meeting in his office at 3:00 pm one day to discuss an impending decision that had to be made.  Five senior executives, plus the CEO were in attendance.

About 5:00 pm Gayle knocked on the CEO’s door and entered.  She said, “It’s after five and I’ll be leaving soon.  If you need anything let me know.”  The CEO glanced at his watch and said to the group of executives,” “Oh my goodness, look at what happened to the time.  I didn’t realize it was so late.  I don’t think we can reach a decision very soon.  WE might be here a couple of more hours.  If anyone needs to leave for any personal reason, please feel free to do so. The rest of us will stay until we find a workable solution.”

To the CEO’s request there were a couple of sidebar discussions until one of the five whom I will call Bryan to protect his identity said, “Well, I’m here for sure.  I’m supposed to attend my daughter’s ballet recital tonight and if this meeting goes for a couple of more hours, I’ll have good excuse to miss it.”

A few of the executives chuckle at Bryan’s makeshift humor, until the CEO turned to Gayle, who was still standing just inside the office door.  He said, “Gayle, there is something you could do for me.  Down in the mail room there are large folded boxes that the clerks use for shipping.  I think they are stacked against the back wall.  Would you mind going down there before you leave and get me about six of those boxes? And, I also need one of those hand-held shipping tape dispensers. Do you know what I mean?”

Gayle nodded that she understood and left the room.  While she was gone, the meeting continued for several minutes until Gayle returned pulling a four-wheel cart on which were six large flat boxes and a shipping tape dispenser.  She knocked on the door, stuck her head in and asked, “Where do you want me to put the boxes?”

Without so much as a blink, the CEO said, “Thank you Gayle, Please put them in Bryan’s office for me, because he might need them tomorrow morning.” Then, once again without missing a beat, the CEO moved back to topic at hand and said, “So what’s the best course of action we ought to take?”

A little puzzled at the CEO’s request, Gayle began to close the door when she heard Bryan ask, “Excuse me, but why will I need the boxes tomorrow morning?”

And for a third time, without missing a beat the CEO said, “If you miss your daughter’s ballet recital tonight, you’ll need the boxes tomorrow morning to pack up your personal belongings, because you won’t be working for me anymore.”

With that statement, a shocked Bryan slowly gathered up his papers from the meeting and started to walk toward the door.  As he was about to leave, the CEO said, “Let me make this absolutely clear.  To be successful in your personal life or in your professional life it is necessary to make good decisions.  Being able to prioritize what is important to you and others is critical to being effective as a leader.  Our employees watch us carefully to see if we do what we say.  And, they are keenly aware of how we prioritize our responsibilities.   If we are not smart enough to realize that attending our daughter’s ballet recital is far more important than a business meeting. Then we are not smart enough to lead this company.”

After a stunned silence of several seconds, the CEO had one last comment before Bryan closed the door.  He said, “Remember, work is for a while, but your family is forever.  Make sure your actions reflect that fact.”

Over the next few years the CEO’s actions that night were told and retold throughout the large company to literally thousands of employees. It became an incentive for all to hear and a reminder that effective managers and leaders must have the ability to prioritize their responsibilities. The failure to prioritize responsibilities effectively, for both personal leadership and professional leadership, pave a pathway toward failure.  Likewise, practicing personal prioritization enables managers and leaders to “walk their talk,” or demonstrate personal integrity.  Employees can smell from a mile a leader who lacks integrity and whose actions are opposed to his or her stated values.  Conversely, employees will follow, work hard, take initiative, and make good decisions for leaders who know their priorities and follow them with appropriate actions.

The wise CEO seized an opportunity to teach a valuable lesson to a few of his colleagues.  But his lesson lives on as the true story continues to be retold. I think the CEO knew that the ability to prioritize is a critical requirement to being an effective manager or leader.  If a person does not specifically know what is important to his or her success, it will be difficult for that person to make decisions with integrity.  Successful leaders and managers have taken the time to list the five or ten most important things in their lives.  Unsuccessful managers and leaders, by not prioritizing effectively, empower other people, even the competition, to prioritize their daily lives.  This reactionary method to leadership is a major step toward ultimate failure, both personal and professional.

So what is important to you?  What are your priorities?  Have you made a list of the ten most important things in your life? If we analyzed your list, would it be a close reflection of you daily actions?  What differences would there be?  Do you practice the principle the CEO gave us as his parting shot at Bryan: “Work is for a while, and your family is forever.”

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About the Author
Richard Williams, Ph.D.
Dr. Richard L. Williams has been a business consultant for over 40 years and has conducted more than 5,000 workshops to more than 350,000 managers and executives. Rick’s interests include maximizing human performance, team building, leadership development, executive coaching, process improvement, and instrumentation research and design. Rick has experience in working with a wide range of industries globally.

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