Like most people who enjoy their work, are at least moderately successful at it, and have some years under their belt, I've got a daily routine. At 7 a.m. I flick on the computer in my home office. As it boots up, I make some coffee, then come back to check my office e-mail while the coffee brews. Somewhere between five and 30 e-mails later (depending on my inbox), it's back to get the brewed coffee, and then I'll read the news wires for 20 minutes or so as I caffeinate and get ready for the day.
But like a lot of working people, that's as streamlined as my day gets. By 8:00, I've got calls coming and going; freelancers to work with; interviews to schedule, conduct, and tape; tapes to transcribe; and articles to write and edit in addition to conferencing into meetings with our Washington, D.C., main office. Every time I sit down to compose my thoughts, the phone rings, I get a pop-up announcing that I have new e-mail, or the instant messaging service rings in with a request from a co-worker. So much for technology making life more efficient.
At least I'm not alone. The typical businessperson is interrupted once every 11 minutes and after any interruption takes about 25 minutes to return to the task at hand, according to a University of California at Irvine study cited by Jerry Useem in “How I Work,” a report in the March 20 issue of Fortune magazine on how super-achievers like Senator John McCain, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, and Google vice president Marissa Mayer manage time, people, and the flow of information.
Their strategies vary widely—some return every voicemail message they get within 30 minutes, others never return any e-mails—but all of the success stories share threads that are also common themes in lumber and building materials supply: relying on teamwork, delegating responsibility, and using technology in one form or another to keep things moving forward. “There really isn't a simple answer to the question of how you can work to be a better leader or manager,” says Rick Smith, president of Alexandria, Va.–based Smitty's Building Supply, a three-unit pro dealer that has grown gross sales from $44 million to $85 million since 2003. “There are so many time constraints on guys in my position, whether they are a president or a CEO or whatever; there are so many meetings you have to go to and people that you have to talk to.”
One strategy Smitty's implemented to keep its management team fresh was hiring a COO in January, a move that enables Smith to make greater commitments to the larger Northern Virginia business and neighborhood communities where Smitty's operates. “I don't know how many companies are doing that, but when you get up to our size you need someone that can concentrate on all of the operational issues so the CEO or president can find the time to do some community-related things and go to the Chamber of Commerce luncheons and have the meetings with the banks.” Smith also reports that he has recently become a “crackberry” addict, using the popular BlackBerry wireless e-mail device to keep in touch with Smitty's employees and customers while on the go.
Regardless of how you manage information and time, I suggest that it all comes back to how you manage your people. For all of Smith's Chamber luncheons and bank meetings, his outside sales reps laud his open-door policy and his availability in the day-to-day business of pro sales. Maybe that's why Smitty's has one of the highest sales averages in the country.
The e-mails will keep piling up and the BlackBerries will keep buzzing, but nothing will replace team play and hard work. Leader or not, that's probably the best routine of all.