My first week as a Director.
Here's what I learned.
Earlier this month, I was promoted from a Manager to a Director, a position I always wanted. A close friend asked me how it felt, and I had two words for them: vindicated and justified. Vindicated, because as a manager, I made a lot of mistakes. So many mistakes that I thought my shot was gone. This promotion made me realize those mistakes were needed and served as opportunities for me to learn and grow. Justified because, as a manager, you work so many long hours - hours that sometimes go unseen - and you ask yourself if it's even worth it. The promotion made me realize it was worth it. It made me appreciate working long and hard before the title, and now that the title is here, it justifies the hard work put in to get here.
Between the vindication and the justification, I've noticed a confidence boost. As a manager, you suffer greatly from "imposter syndrome." At times you see the big picture, the solution, but are afraid to speak up. Because everyone here in the meeting with you is a director and up, they surely must see the big picture too, right? As a director, you've earned the right to speak your mind and why you're thinking that. You're a director now - your opinions are valued, no matter how silly YOU may think they are. This shift in mindset removes, or alleviates, all fear-based thoughts and lets your authentic self shine through. This confidence mustn't ever go away because it's good for the soul. By accomplishing such a close, personal task, you are experiencing a form of zen from the rawest and oldest source of such peace—an authentic form of self-actualizing.
With confidence, justification, and validation, that shouldn't mean that all hard work must stop. In actually, this is only the beginning. This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where we prove we're here to stay. These are where the tools of the trade come in.
Very few people are born great. The rest of them earn it with blood, sweat, and tears. Anyone can become anyone with hard work and dedication. We've seen how we've changed from day one: how we displayed instances of focus, deliberate practice and preparation, and more. So now that we're here with the big dogs, we can acknowledge two things: 1) at this level, the competition is a lot stronger, and 2) you need to sharpen your tools.
The two tools that got me here were due to the one thing I could control: my mind. For the past two years, I've undergone a serious mental shift in thinking to where "I can only control what I can control, and that is what I focus on." If I can't do anything about it, what's the point in stressing about it? My mind has become sharper - due in some part to these tools - and now, it's time to make it even sharper. Those tools are the following books and the ideologies they preach:
Deep Work by Cal Newport
Getting Things Done by David Allen
4 Principles of Execution (4DX) - I didn't read this one, but there are themes from it worth calling out
One of the most important lessons I've learned in my first week is prioritization. As a director, everything is on your plate, and now you blame the responsibility for it all. As a manager, you always had someone you reported to, and they had some responsibility. But as a director, everything is on your shoulders. And that makes everything look vastly important.
The truth is, not everything is important right now. And you can't - and shouldn't - try to do everything right now. The reason for this is that you can't multitask. Multiple studies have shown that instead of multitasking, you're shifting your attention from one task to another, ultimately leaving behind attention residue1, and at this level, attention is everything. You can't multitask, but what you can do is focus - and focus intently. That's where Deep Work comes in.
Deep Work's premise lays the foundation of our current work environment. What's keenly important is that Deep Work takes into account our growing technological offices. As society grows, technology grows, and this technology can - and oftentimes does - make it hard for us to do deep work. From the emails to the meetings to the IMs, these are all seen as "work," but how much "work" is actually getting done. Deep Work shows that we have work (emails, meetings, etc.) that takes us away from actually doing work (strategic and solution thinking and actions). This little work eats away at our attention and thus, prevents us from bringing our focused attention to what matters. Deep Work shows us that our attention is our greatest weapon, and we need to focus it - like the arrow it is.
And to focus it, we need to be away from distractions. To achieve this, we need to schedule or remove things that pry our attention. This week I realized that it's okay to cancel a meeting if you need to think about something deeper. It's okay to go on "Do Not Disturb" if you're trying to solve something bigger. This is needed. Sometimes, you'll need to wake up at 5a on a Saturday because that's the only time you'll be able to get some work done. But, once that work is done, the mental clarity that comes with it is immensely inspiring and refreshing (trust me, that was me the morning of this article).
Deep Work tells and shows us the value of two things: 1) scheduling time to focus your time and attention on huge, essential things, and 2) depth in work and thought process is needed to think deeper and farther into things. This skill will be clutch as a director, but simply because one's a director doesn't mean they don't have to worry about the other things that need to get done. Sure, not everything's a fire drill, but the lights still have to be kept on in the shop. That's where Getting Things Done (GTD) comes in.
As a director, yes, you'll keep the big things going, but you need to have a pulse on the little things as well. One of the lessons from Deep Work is delegation, which is another skill to learn. If you can train someone else to do it in a small amount of time, delegate it. But you still need to have an eye for that item - and other items that could be tied to that item (you think deep now, so you can see three, four steps down the line). That's where GTD excels. GTD is all about the power of lists.
First things first, you have to capture everything on your plate. Put it on a document or a spreadsheet. This morning, I used excel, so it's your choice. The goal here is to go through everything (inbox, notebooks, etc.) and place them all in one place to see how many items you have on your "to-do" list. Once you have everything, you clarify what you need to do with each item. Essentially you have two options here: 1) is this a task (ex: can I do this in one step)? Is this a project (ex: do I have to do A first, then B, then C)? Once you've identified if it's a project or task, you then determine the next step. If it's a task like sending an email, it will go on one kind of list, and projects will go on another. This description is a super simplified version of GTD2, but the idea here is two-fold. You're going to spend a lot of time capturing everything on your plate (I had 74 items), and two, you'll spend even more time thinking through the next steps of each item. (I had a cup of green tea to start my day, and it came in handy.)
But similar to the zen you get from going deep with deep work, you'll get a similar sensation with GTD once you see everything and anything on your plate. You've emptied your inbox, you've gone through your notes (physical and electronic), and you've placed them in one location. You now know what you need to do when, and most importantly, you'll start to see what should be prioritized and what can be delegated. This goes back to the most important lesson we learned during our first week, prioritization.
By combining depth in our work with GTD, we can plan out our schedule on what needs to be worked on, how much time is required3, and more. These steps and processes sound like more work on top of what we already have to do, but this becomes easier by getting into a habit. That's where 4DX comes in.
I didn't read this book, but the tenants of it are noteworthy, especially the first two:
Focus on the wildly important
Act on lead measures
Keep a scorecard
Create a cadence of accountability
Deep Work and GTD speak on focusing on the widely important, but Tennant two itself packs a punch. In the business world, there are the lag measure (the end goal) and lead measures (the steps to get to the end goal). Often, when a goal is so big and so many unknown steps, this can be mentally draining and exhaustive. But by simply doing the next step (from GTD), which can be seen as the lead measure - and by doing it daily, thanks to your scorecard4, you create a habit, a routine. One that sharpens your focus consistently, making time for depth, keeping and capturing everything and anything that needs to be done.
So during my first week as a Director, I came out guns blazing. The increased confidence undoubtedly helped me move through projects and items. And throughout the week, our attention was sharp and focused, but man, we had a rough Friday. And that's cool. Friday, we got away from the tools, and the effect was felt (which resulted in having to wake up at 5a on a Saturday). But that's okay - those are the experiences we need to let us know that we're playing with the big boys now. Everyone's on their tippy-toes, and so must you. You've shown you belong here; now it's time to show you can excel here. And the key is simple: focus on the important without losing sight of the non-important and execute with relentless efficiency. The world is your oyster and this first week, the first week in living out a self-actualized dream, made me realize that.
"Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone, and as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others." - Marianne Williamson.
Attention Residue is when you pay attention to Task A and then go to Task B, but some of the attention you paid to Task A is still there while you work on Task B.
Note: I haven't been the best GTD user in a while, so my use here is adhoc. But trust me, I'll be working on practicing what I preach :)
For Deep Work, you need to schedule at least two hours uninterrupted so your brain can get into the flow-like state, which takes about 30 minutes. So what's key is blocking off a considerable amount of time for no distractions and total concentration. That's the hard part.
This scorecard can be your many lists. What I do is every week, I go through my lists and see what I accomplished. The goal is to achieve greater than 80% of my tasks.