Setting Priorities

It’s amazing how having the right priorities makes such a significant difference in your success in life. Priorities help to motivate us and focus us on doing the right thing when the wrong thing is calling to us. Think about the type of choices that a 17-year-old can make. Should he spend a significant amount of time studying and preparing himself for a strong scholastic future, or should he skateboard and play video games with his time. One increases his chance for success in school and life; the other distracts him and rarely adds value other than momentary gratification. For many 17 year olds it comes down to priorities.

When I was 17 my priority was finding a way to have fun. As a result, I was one of the kids on the video games, avoiding my schoolwork like the plague. I was lucky to earn a scholarship based on my SAT scores, but in the end it didn’t matter. I wasn’t ready for college when I went to Mississippi State. I wasn’t even much of a party person; I just didn’t know how to succeed. I hadn’t learned the discipline of studying, I was easily distracted. I ended up spending most of my time playing games with friends on our computers and skipping most classes altogether. The problem was priorities. Doing well in school and preparing for a successful future was not my priority. My priority was having fun and I succeeded. I had a lot of fun, but I didn’t achieve what I had the opportunity to achieve, and created a lot of extra work for myself later in life.

I know I’ve already jumped on a tangent here, but I might as well go with it. This experience leads me to believe that many kids coming out of high school would actually benefit from the dead-end job experience. School seems a lot easier and a lot more useful after you’ve worked for a living, paid your own rent, and felt that glass ceiling pushing down on you. It helps you to realize what you’re going to get out of school and really improves a person’s motivation. What it does more than anything else, is help to establish your priorities. When you’ve realized that you don’t want to be trapped in a dead-end job it becomes much easier to set a priority of graduating from college so that you can work your way into a better future.

That’s what priorities do for us. They establish a personal paradigm that helps you weigh your options and determine what is helpful and what is not. Many times when you have real priorities it helps to give you the strength you need to hold on long enough to succeed while others are falling by the wayside.

As you can see, priorities are powerful things. So what are your priorities at work? What paradigm do you have set up to help you determine what you should be working on and when you should give that extra effort? In my case, I spent years focused on myself. I remember hearing throughout my young career that you had to look out for yourself. No one else was going to act with your best interests at heart so you had to do it yourself. I expect that you’ve heard the same thing at some point. It seems to be a common message in society today. Pop culture is convincing young people that they have to take what they can get. In other words, be selfish and put your needs above others. After all, everybody else is doing it.

I understand the allure of this ‘me against the world’ mindset. However, when it comes to success in business it is a flawed and broken model that creates its own form of glass ceiling over young workers and sets more advanced workers up for a more public failure. If you want a company or team or group to be successful then there must be mutual trust and respect. No team can succeed if everybody is busy looking out for themselves. In that type of culture the difficult work, the behind the scenes things that make everything go, get ignored because it wasn’t glamorous enough.

My model for personal and team success in business is to establish a three-tiered list of priorities.

Priority # 1 – Company

Priority #2 – Team

Priority #3 – Self

I’ve been using this personal set of priorities for years now, but it was never laid out this clearly in my mind. Then as a leader I realized that the members of my team did not naturally follow this pattern. I dug in deep to verbalize this concept and immediately shared it with my team. If everybody followed these priorities then I felt confident in our ability to succeed. The idea of developing a team that thought like this also appealed to me because it would be a group that I knew I could enjoy working with. As a leader I used to discuss significant decisions publicly so that each person on the team could understand my thought process and see how it lined up with these priorities. I felt that it was important for the team members to know that I lived by the same set of rules so that they could develop the same level of trust in me that I wanted to have in them.

The benefits to the leader of a team like this are obvious. When people put their egos aside they are able to accomplish so much more. In addition, this mind-set helps to generate a mentality where people are actively looking for opportunities to help the company and team. This mind-set is invaluable; it helps turn potential failures into successes even when the leader isn’t aware of it.

As time went on I started to notice the benefit that I received as an individual by operating under these priorities. As I moved out of a leadership role into an individual contributor position I’ve made absolutely certain to maintain the same philosophy. My leaders have never heard me discuss this philosophy. In fact, they might not even share it. But regardless of how they operate, they see the results generated by this set of priorities and can’t keep themselves from being impressed.

The person that adopts this set of priorities is more likely to achieve long-term, sustainable success. They don’t have to tell anybody about it, people just notice. Managers notice, they see the impacts of this behavior and they start to wish that the rest of the people on their team were just like you.

Let me give you an example. As a manager I had a wonderful employee who serves as a good example… come to think of it, I had a lot of them. I can think of many times that members of my team worked on weekends to make sure that their workload was in good shape and that they had the time they needed to accomplish what must be completed. I also saw these same employees notice each other’s workloads and volunteer to help with work that they knew would infringe on their own weekend. They did it because they saw a teammate who needed help and they put their team’s success above their own time.

This kind of thing builds a bond between people. They learn to count on each other and are able to accomplish much more than groups of unrelated individuals given the same tasks.

What about putting the company first? What does that look like? I remember when I was the only reporting resource in an area. I found a data source that had some real potential but it also had some real problems. I had been planning to build some cool new reports from this data set but was really disappointed with it. If I moved forward with my original plans it was going to create a lot of extra work and headaches. The work wasn’t necessarily something that my boss had asked for, so I didn’t have to do it. But I knew that the end result was something that was going to help our department make decisions and as a result would improve our contribution to the company as a whole.

I knew my priorities at this point – Company, Team, Self. So I knew that I wanted to do it, but there was no guarantee of success. Was I willing to risk working extra hours and working on weekends to deliver on my plan if there was a chance that it couldn’t be fixed? In the end the answer was yes. The sacrifice of self for the good of a group is the point of the concept. If I wanted to be greedy with my time and efforts then it might make my life easier, but it would not lead to the type of success that I want to achieve.

For those of you who are curious, I was successful in my efforts. It took about a month of extra time, but the results were exactly what I hoped for. Our area was the first to find a way to take certain factors and relationships into account when making our decisions.

What is really cool is that I got personal credit for the work anyway. My motivation was to help the team and the company, but my boss saw the impact that my work had made and made sure that I was credited with it. Does this always happen? No, sometimes you do your work in anonymity, but you keep churning at it. When you find a way to really help out, people will notice eventually.

Last weekend I was talking to my brother about this topic and he reminded me of the reciprocal relationship from the company’s side. When a company has people who put the company first then it is the company’s responsibility to put the employees first. Creating that positive feedback loop acts to elevate the performance of entire organizations.

As always, it starts with you. You can work in a place where employees are truly valued, where the company accomplishes great things. You are the first link in that chain. It all comes down to your priorities.

Be Blessed!


Posted on December 22, 2010, in Leadership Development and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Man, really want to know how can you be that smart, lol…great read, thanks.

  2. I have been checking out a few of your stories and i must say pretty clever stuff. I will definitely bookmark your blog.

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