Posted by: dstieglitz | April 20, 2013

Pioritieis – A Leader’s Most Essentail Choice

A leader determines the organization’s direction in the decisions he or she makes about priorities.

President Obama hit the nail on the head when he said: “The greatest nation on earth cannot conduct its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next.” With its government in gridlock, its national debt rising, its population ageing in a financially unsustainable way, its schools mediocre compared to other rich countries, its infrastructure deteriorating, its regulations overbearing, its tax code tortuous, and its immigration system archaic, the U.S. has fallen from first in the World Economic Forum’s competitive rankings to seventh. Fortunately, Congress dealt with the two most recent crises – the sequester and FY13 budget – and is moving to other priorities. But which issues should get top priority? The priorities they choose will determine the direction of the country and the speed of the recovery.

The Cycle of Change. Congress often cites a 10-year cycle to reduce the annual deficit. That means we are living choices today that they made in the early 2000s. The priorities they set today will determine the 2025 economy. Take infrastructure, for example – arguably the easiest issue to fix. Pushed to respond in 2012, Obama said No to the Keystone XL pipeline – low environmental risk was a higher priority than new jobs and energy independence. Even if infrastructure was a top priority, Congress would take a year to pass a bill; State and local governments would take a year or more to fund projects and issue contracts; followed by years of construction. So it would be at least five years before Congressional action becomes better roads, airports, mass transit, power distribution systems, etc. The change cycle for education is longer since it will be roughly 20 years before the effects of better education for children benefit the economy and society at large. The change cycle for health care, renewable energy, and immigration are also in the 20-year range.

Now the Good News. Even though political gridlock retards growth, the underlying growth prospects are strong and parts of the economy are working well. Unemployment is slowly falling, the housing market is alive again, the stock market hit new highs, and consumer balance sheets are stronger. Displaying true American spirit, state and local governments aren’t waiting for Washington to come up with solutions – they are tackling the issues. In some cases Federal law has been a catalyst for change – education reform is an example. Virtually all states have updated curriculums, made testing more rigorous, and are using incentive programs to hold teachers accountable for results. Most states recognize independent charter schools. On the other hand, federal limits on interstate tolls have pushed states to be creative in paying for improved highways and bridges. Unfortunately, made-in-Washington crises could impact initiatives that are working. Better schools and better roads are good for the economy, but if Washington doesn’t limit growth in entitlement spending, the country may still go broke.

Private-Sector Entrepreneurship. Another reason for optimism is that U.S. companies have made innovation a priority and entrepreneurs are spreading new ideas across industries. For example,  breakthroughs in fracking for oil and gas are boosting the entire economy. Many countries have large oil and gas reserves in impermeable rocks, but American companies developed the technology to tap those reserves, and entrepreneurs are commercializing the technology and the gas. States are making reforms to attract investors, and shale-gas production has made the U.S. into the world’s top gas producer. Furthermore, cheap gas is being used to produce cheap electricity which is luring investors into energy-intensive industries like steelmaking, fertilizers, and plastics. Concurrently, some investors are shifting from safe, low-yield assets to fund startups and small businesses that could become tomorrow’s Microsoft, Apple, Google or Facebook. Focusing on the priorities produces results.

Are You Focusing on the Right Priorities? As a leader, is it possible that you are pushing your people to work on peripheral priorities? If that is the case, it’s probably because you aren’t working on the top priorities either. Unless you are an individual contributor, you should be leading and managing. Getting your people what they need to achieve the organization’s goals is your top priority. One way to determine if you’re working on the right priorities is to ask your key people if they are receiving the direction, support and resources they need to get the job done. You may not like their answers, but now you will have a prioritized to-do list.

Look at Your Calendar. Your calendar is another indicator of whether you are working on the right priorities. The meetings and actions on your schedule are what you consider to be top priorities. The higher your position, the longer the time horizon should be for those items. A short time horizon, say a few weeks, might be appropriate for a first-line manager; while a horizon of years would be typical for a senior executive. For example, an executive leader whose calendar is crammed with project reviews rather than strategic planning probably is not adequately addressing the future.

Setting Priorities. Setting the right priorities is essential to success in your professional and personal lives, although the cycle of change is likely to be shorter than in government. Are priorities for your organization clear and concise? Could your team accomplish more in these turbulent times if it had fewer priorities?

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