What you allow to interrupt you defines your priorities

English: Seal of the President of the United S...

English: Seal of the President of the United States Español: Escudo del Presidente de los Estados Unidos Македонски: Печат на Претседателот на Соединетите Американски Држави. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We often hear management gurus advising us that effective and successful leaders know how to prioritise their work and the work of their company. To an extent, they are correct. What is left unsaid and not discussed is how those priorities are interrupted. By that, I do not mean the strategic opportunities that arrive, which need to be considered so they can be accepted or rejected.  Instead, I mean the more practical issues that occur day to day.

You can see this in senior management meetings.  When the Chief Executive or a corporate director is interrupted from the meeting, consider the issue that requires their meeting to be interrupted.  What is so pressing that it cannot wait until the meeting is over to be considered? Moreover, do they take time out of the meeting to deal with the interruption? I was once part of a high-level strategy team, which included several top managers.  During the discussions, which were going to decide the company’s fate, the senior managers continually checked their smartphones. In the end, the plan failed and the company collapsed.  I could not understand what could be so important on an email that could not wait for the hourly meeting to finish. What this told me was that whatever was in the email was more important than the company’s future.

What is more important your inbox or the presentation?

By looking beyond those senior managers, I noticed that the senior manager’s direct reports were doing the same with their meetings.  If you look down the levels of the organisation, middle managers take their signals from senior managers. In meetings, are the middle managers checking their smartphones for the latest emails?  By doing this, they are signally what their priority is. The email is more important than the presentation.  They may need to do this because their senior managers expect them to be on call.  To an extent, this cannot be avoided.

Is it the meeting is boring or the email is exciting or both?

At the same time, when managers are checking their smartphones, it may be because the presentation is poor, off target, or simply not of interest.  In other words, the manager is prioritising the time differently because the meeting is poorly designed.  In that case, you have a different issue. The meeting, its agenda, and its content can show that not enough care has been given about why it is being given, what the agenda has, and how the presentations (or discussions) that make up the meeting are designed and delivered.  I am not talking about these interruptions, as they are symptomatic of the context.  Instead, I mean the interruption that CEOs or senior managers allow.

The topic tells a story.

When the CEO or senior manager is interrupted, they are sending an indirect signal that the issue, which interrupts, is more important than the one being discussed.  I have focused on this issue because of a story that Peter Drucker told in the Effective Executive.  He said he had a weekly meeting with a CEO, which covered Drucker’s management project.  The meetings lasted exactly 90 minutes, only focused on one topic, and ended on time with no interruptions. Drucker asked how the CEO was able to achieve this feat.  The CEO said, “I instructed my secretary that only two interruptions were allowed.  The first was if the President of the United States called. He does not call.  The second is if my wife calls. She knows not to call me at work.”  With that simple story, Drucker showed that the CEO could focus because there was no higher priority for those 90 minutes He would not allow himself to be distracted during the meeting. He also knew there would be no problem that could not wait for 90 minutes.

One could argue that this story is only valid for CEOs who are in a business that does not have breaking news, or immediate updates.  Yet, very few CEOs are dealing with those types of operational issues.  If they are, then there are issues that need to be considered. Why can’t the CEO delegate those decisions? In some cases, you may have a CEO who personally edits any press release. When you see that type of interruption, you begin to see what the organisation prioritises.  What is it about editing a standard press release that makes it the job of the CEO? Why are they unable to delegate to their Head of Communication, the Senior Press Officer, or their spokesperson?  When you start to see these patterns, you realize that what distracts the leader is what guides them.


The person who is allowed to interrupt tells another story.

Just as the topic, which is the basis for the interruption, can tell you about what is a priority, so does the person who is allowed to interrupt.  The status of the person who is allowed to interrupt tells you how the senior manager or CEO delegates and prioritises.  If they allow junior officers to interrupt, then it is likely the topic. If it is a senior officer, or a colleague, then it is their status and not the topic.  In either case, the CEO or senior manager is telling the participants at the meeting, what is more important: the meeting or the interruption.  If this happens regularly, such as, senior managers allow (or are required to let) junior finance officers (press officers) (health and safety officers) (corporate governance officers) to interrupt, then finance (press, health and safety, corporate governance) is the priority for the organisation despite what may be stated by the company’s public statements.

The analysis does not work for middle managers or junior managers because they cannot control their time or their meetings in the same way as a CEO or a senior manager.  However, the next time you are at a meeting where the CEO or a Company Director is interrupted, take note of the topic and the person who is interrupting. Both of these will tell you more about what the organisation’s senior leadership, and by extension the organisation, consider a priority.



About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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5 Responses to What you allow to interrupt you defines your priorities

  1. Dan Slee says:

    A really cracking and thoughtful post, Lawrence. It’s often the battle on how to prioritise your own stuff rather than the less important background noise that’s the tricky part.


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