Being busy not a sign of being effective

Published by The Nashville Business Journal

Don’t confuse activity with accomplishment. Fifty years ago, my first mentor told me that simple phrase — and it’s helped me be a better leader ever since.

Young, active and energetic, I worked for a large discount store in New Jersey, where I was responsible for a bank of 20 checkouts and supporting functions. On Saturday mornings, our busiest time of the week, my boss’s boss often dropped in to observe.

Then he’d have me sit down for coffee, pointing out how many places I had been in the past 30 minutes, performing trivial chores that I could easily delegate. He helped me focus on the important stuff — selecting good people, coaching my team and planning for the next several weeks.

I was a slow learner, but it finally sank in: Busyness and business are not the same things.

Acting, not just looking, the part
Here’s an example of how to separate activity and accomplishment. At Tractor Supply Co., we had managers who were fanatical about maintaining a picture-perfect store. They would work extra hours to ensure every display was neat and every shelf was precisely organized to meet every company standard. While it sounds like a very practical goal, strong leaders know this is not the most important ingredient in the most successful stores.

The best sales and profits come from stores with an overriding passion for first-class customer service — the places where employees jump through hoops to make sure every customer is satisfied.

In fact, when I would call to praise these outstanding stores, it was not unusual for the manager to say, “Sorry, Joe, but I can’t talk right now. We have customers to take care of.” These leaders are focusing on the right thing. Creating a flawless store is a time-consuming activity; delivering stellar customer service is the key to maximum accomplishment.

This message translates to all businesses. We can all learn the tasks that lead to the greatest accomplishment in our own lines of work. In most cases, accomplishment is tied directly to increasing revenue and profits. As you think about your role in your organization, try to step back and analyze your daily activities to assess how they align with the factors that lead to true accomplishment.

If your employees are frantically replying to every email that pops in the inbox, thinking that the sheer act of answering each and every correspondence is an accomplishment, help them think outside the inbox.

As a leader, you should clearly define for your team the actions that lead to real, productive accomplishment — not just activity.

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