Minimum Daily Leadership

I work with leaders at tech companies who want to build an organization that runs smoothly without their constant oversight. They want to find a way to rise above day-to-day operations so they can spend more time on high value projects that will grow the company.

Without exception, they are smart, hard-working, and motivated. They have tremendous potential to be effective leaders.

But, the onslaught of operational demands makes it a constant battle to put enough time into the things that are transformative for the company. Still, no matter how hard it is to do, this is their most important job.

Minimum Daily Leadership is a methodology for leaders who want to improve their focus on what matters most. This article explains how it works.

First, let’s get clear on our terms…

Operational versus Strategic Work

You are doing operational work when you oversee day-to-day operations, answer people’s questions about how to solve today’s problems, and keep busy managing the nuts and bolts. You are necessary to the company running smoothly.

You are doing strategic work when you take a step back and think bigger picture, improve the way the company does business, and invest energy in projects that will pay off big eventually. You’re ten steps ahead and showing the way forward.

Here are some more ways to think about the difference:

Operational Work Strategic Work
Plays the… short game long game
Solves problems… one-by-one by category

(e.g. eliminate an entire class of problem all at once)

Is about… survival flourishing
Focusses on… maintaining what is building what could be
Makes… incremental improvements transformative improvements

Why Strategic Work Is Important

Unless leaders do their strategic work, things won’t improve. Perhaps, you’d like higher revenues, or better customers, or more interesting work, or better employees, or fewer headaches, or a different business model, or a higher valuation, or a way to manage rapid growth without everyone having heart attacks.

Whatever it is, it won’t happen without a) planning, b) clear measures of success, and c) consistent effort. Otherwise, you’ll wake up one day and realize that two more years have gone by and you have all the same problems.

To lead is to have a vision for the future of your company and then do the foundational work required to make that vision a reality. Therefore, you’re not really “leading” unless you are consistently doing strategic work. Insofar as you get lost in your operational responsibilities you’re a cog in the machine maintaining the status quo.

Neglecting Strategic Work Costs More Than You Think

Let’s illustrate with a fictional example. Arthur is the CEO of a SaaS company. Sales growth depends entirely on inbound leads generated from content marketing. He realizes that he needs to establish an outbound sales team who can pursue enterprise customers. This is one of his strategic wins for the year.

Arthur has a wide range of operational responsibilities and he regularly feels very busy. It’s often tempting to postpone working on building an outbound sales team to “later”, when he has more time.

How much does that decision cost him?

Let’s say that an outbound sales team could eventually double the company’s revenue. That means that for every week he pushes that project back, it costs 1/52 of his current yearly revenue. If that’s 250K, we’re talking 4.8K/week. 1M would be 19K/week. 52M would be 1M/week.

Obviously, the numbers won’t be this predictable, but you get the idea. It’s real money. But because it’s in the future, not the present, he doesn’t feel sick about it like he would if it was more immediate.

But there are other costs that are harder to calculate. Things like:

  • Arthur is sending the implicit message to the team that “I was busy” is a valid excuse for not following through.
  • He loses momentum on the project. It takes far more energy to get things rolling again than it would have taken to keep the momentum up.
  • He has reinforced a habit of caving to the “tyranny of the urgent”. Every time a bad habit is indulged it’s that much harder to break later.
  • Everything that’s frustrating about the current situation gets perpetuated that much longer.

Just like Arthur, blowing off strategic work for a week, doesn’t just cost you 7 days. You lose money and you make things harder for yourself and your company down the road.

It’s Tough to Overcome the “Tyranny of the Urgent”

If you’re a leader who has both strategic and operational responsibilities, it’s hard to balance the two. The immediate needs of the business tend to take over your schedule. Big picture, strategic work tends to get postponed.

It often feels like you’re too busy to slow down and take the time to provide “strategic leadership”.

And, in fact, at times, focussing on the urgent at the expense of the important is the right decision. There are weeks when “all hands on deck” is appropriate. You can’t sit in your ivory tower doing strategic work while your business burns down.

But we must be very, very careful about allowing ourselves to occasionally neglect our strategic work. “Occasionally” very easily becomes “usually”. Things are always crazy busy. Working on longer term goals quickly becomes a “luxury we can’t afford”. And so, leaders end up neglecting their most important job.

How to Embed Strategic Leadership Into Your Day

As long as strategic work is optional, it will be neglected.

The best way to overcome the “tyranny of the urgent” is to commit to attending to your strategic work every single day, no matter what.

To do that, you need a definition of Minimum Daily Leadership (MDL) that is attainable no matter how busy you are. A relatively low bar that you commit to reaching. A line in the sand, about which you say, “As I work to improve the consistency of my strategic leadership, come hell or high water, I will at least do this.”

Think of strategic leadership as a hierarchy, with Minimum Daily Leadership as the foundation of discipline and consistency that supports ever increasing levels of achievement.

In the next section, we’ll talk about what exactly the four practices of Minimum Daily Leadership are. Before that, though, it’s important to make the point that MDL is intentionally a low bar. It’s mostly about paying attention, not doing the actual work.

On a day to day basis, we’re talking about 120 seconds of your time. If a person can’t follow through on that, it’s hard to take their commitment to being a leader seriously.

It may be counter-intuitive, but once you have developed the rhythm of hitting MDL, you have fought 80% of the battle. The remaining tiers come pretty easily after that. Planning and mindfulness are very effective ways to improve your rate of follow through.

What Constitutes Minimum Daily Leadership?

Let’s break down the four practices.

Practice #1: Have a written strategic plan and revisit it regularly

To truly be leading, you have to tend to the company’s big picture success, not just short-term survival. You have to be out in front of everyone else, exploring, experimenting and identifying “what’s next”.

The plan can be brief. A single page is fine. But it should have specific action items with deadlines.

And then actually use it. It’s pointless to put together a plan and then never look at it again.

You need to regularly review the plan, update it to reflect the current state of affairs, and, crucially, track whether you completed each action item by the deadline.

Practice #2: Every week, identify 1-3 strategic wins

No matter how busy you get, always identify at least one strategic win for the week that contributes to your larger objectives.

To be clear, this practice is not about doing your strategic wins. It’s about knowing what they are and writing them down. Some weeks will explode on you and it actually will be legitimate to say that you didn’t have time to finish your strategic work. BUT, you must always know what your wins are even if you can’t do them.

Practice #3: Every day, review your wins and choose one to work on

Every morning, take 60 seconds and read through your wins for the week. Then pick the one you are going to make progress on today.

Here’s what’s interesting: “none” is a legitimate answer. Some days, the urgent things in your business will outweigh the importance of your wins. After all, your company has to survive in the short-term in order to succeed in the long-term.

In fact, as I said earlier, on occasion this will be the case for an entire week. If blowing off your strategic wins is the right thing for your company, then by all means blow them off.

However, you must do that thoughtfully and deliberately. You can’t just let the chaos take hold and then at the end of the week look back and say “I was too busy to work on my wins.” That’s not leadership. That’s self-justification after the fact.

So, even when everything is crazy, take 60 seconds every day to review your strategic wins for the week and pick one to work on. Or, consciously choose “none”.

Practice #4: Have specific habits you are working on and track them daily

Everyone has some habits that serve and some that sabotage. You likely have several habits that prevent you from spending time on strategic work so part of being a strategic leader is to always be working on optimizing your personal habits. Here are some fundamental areas to consider:

Energy

  • Sleep
  • Exercise
  • Diet
  • Downtime

Effectiveness

  • Plan your day before it starts
  • Set “Zero Distraction” time blocks
  • Process email only at set times
  • Refrain from taking on other people’s responsibilities

The idea isn’t to tackle every area at once. Pick 1-3 that have a good balance between difficulty and benefit. After selecting the habits you are going to work to improve, the most important thing you can do is track yourself every day.

Tracking both successes and failures enforces a virtuous feedback loop. You’ll find that your habits will improve just through mindfulness. Some habits will require extra thought and effort, but the first step is to pay attention through tracking.

So, take 60 seconds every morning to track your successes and failures with your habits for the previous day.

In Summary

  • You’re not really “leading” unless you are consistently doing strategic work.
  • As long as strategic work is optional, it will be neglected.
  • To make strategic leadership a daily discipline, commit to the four practices of Minimum Daily Leadership:
    1. Have a written strategic plan and revisit it regularly
    2. Every week, identify 1-3 strategic wins
    3. Every day, review your wins and choose one to work on
    4. Have specific habits you are working on and track them daily

Don’t fall prey to the lie that you are too busy to fulfill your role as a strategic leader. Commit to at least reaching Minimum Daily Leadership. Your company needs you to lead well, every single day, no matter how busy you get.