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Setting Priorities

by Mark Hennes | Aug 18, 2017

Quote of Note
"Action expresses priorities."
- Mahatma Gandhi

I once had a boss who said “You gotta do it all to be a champion”. While I like a sports aphorism as well as the next person, I’ve found that trying to do everything well means that you fall short of doing anything really well.
Leaders are always juggling priorities, but I’ve found that wasting my time and energy on too many competing priorities meant I completed most tasks in a mediocre way. Worse yet, I even failed at some of them.

As a leader, if you focus your team on doing “everything” and doing everything at a “world-class” level (see there, sports again), then you really aren’t focusing them at all. Either they’ll careen from one hot priority to the next --- leading to their burnout --- or they’ll ignore you; choosing instead to figure out their own priorities. Worse yet, they’ll bide their time until you come along with the next hot priority for them to consider.

As a leader, I’ve learned to exit that merry-go-round by establishing clear priorities. I first gauge the capacity of my team to actually do the work and then I delineate those things that need to be done at a “world-class” level, what could be done at a lower level of performance, and, yes, what doesn’t get done at all. I use the priorities when making decisions on workloads and timelines, and make sure my team hears me articulate the priorities behind these decisions.

As an organizational level leader (school building and district administrator) I encourage identifying and prioritizing a select few critical goals or objectives. These priorities should reflect in your resourcing decisions (time, money, personnel, etc.) and should be evident in your communications to staff and community. Learn to include them in your walk-arounds, too: “What have you done to ensure a safe and secure school environment today?” “How are you helping improve math skills in your science class?” “How are you working on literacy skills in every lesson?”

Be careful not to let yourself prioritize away the tough stuff. (You know, those tasks or objectives that are difficult or unpleasant.) Take a second look at those items that are in your low priority bucket (and those that aren’t in any priority bucket) to see if they’re there just because they’re tough to get done. Sometimes, you have to eat your spinach, so do the drudge tasks and have the tough conversations because they’ll benefit your organization in the long run. As a leader you need to set the example, so it’s OK to acknowledge the tough tasks: “I know this committee isn’t the most enjoyable, but here’s why it’s worth our time…”

Be sure to include the voices of others as you develop your priorities. Their involvement will yield some baked-in support that you just might need when you go public with your prioritized action plan.



Get It Done

  • Look to your organization’s annual and/or strategic plan for yearly goals and objectives to prioritize.
  • Reframe these priorities in terms applicable to your team. Bounce them off of a few colleagues or team members, if you’re unsure or need some buy-in.
  • Clearly and repeatedly articulate these priorities. Reference them when making decisions and giving guidance.
  • Prioritizing and goal setting saves time in the long run, so take the time to do it right at the outset.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CAIU, its directors, or its staff.