„Fire after fire! All I do is fighting the fire! I don`t have time for my team, for my plans and life...“, -my friend shared with me her frustration during chat over a cup of coffee. It was sad to see this young woman so stressed. I remember her a couple of years ago, energetic and full of ideas she was accepting a new challenge to become a division manager in a large corporation. How did it happen, that talented and devoted people become so burned out in a couple of years? What role firefighting has to play with it? Is firefighting one of the stress factors that could be avoided or properly managed in corporate life? Our brainstorming over the topic of how to fight the firefighting begins.
Constant fires are not OK
Like always, it all starts on top. I had and still have an honour to work with great leaders. There is one thing they all have in common. True leaders understand that things take time. Miracles will not happen just by CEO snipping fingers, requesting something to be done. Things do take time. Plans could and should be ambitious, but still realistic.
I have seen people, who used to work in a firefighting mode. After some time, they lose the ability to be productive under normal work tempo, they need a new portion of adrenaline to operate. This becomes unhealthy and destructive in the long run. Perhaps constant firefighting culture is common in organizations, where leaders are used to work in this mode? Anyhow, if firefighting is a typical management approach at your workplace and you cannot change it, my advice is – run fast and run far. There are more healthy companies led by true leaders out there.
Where did your time go?
Some years ago I realized, that something is wrong with my work schedule. I was spending days taking part in meetings and dealing with ad hock tasks. My to do list was becoming longer and longer, while the “done” part was disappointingly short. Something needed to change. I started populating my activities in the outlook calendar. Regular meetings with green, administrative tasks with yellow, time spend on communication with my team with orange and ad hock matters with red. No need to go crazy, just rounded to half an hour, to get an overview of the day. The result was shocking. It appeared that in general, 60% of my time went to meetings, email handling took another 25%-30% and then I had some ridiculous 10% left for actually doing things and supporting my team. Reality hit was harsh, but it was also the first step to change the situation for the better.
Great alternative to work
We all know the joke that meetings could be a great alternative to work and in some cases, it is true. I have started critically assessing the need to take part in the meetings where I was invited. Do I have the authority to make decisions on the topic discussed? If no, is this the only way to get information about the topic? Is this meeting in line with my work priorities? Is it worth spending the time? If answers were no, I classified the meeting as a waste of time, skipped it and spend the time on much more valuable activities.
In the darkest moments of my corporate life, I received over a hundred emails per day, half of these needed some form of response. Simple calculation: 150 emails * 1 minute per email in average to read and respond = 2,5 hours per day or 30% of working time. Are you kidding me? At least a third of each working day spent on email handling? Some of my colleagues followed the easy path – they just stopped reacting to emails, totally ignoring them. This was not acceptable for me. The decision came at the organizational level. We have called the meeting, this time it was worth it, and agreed on a corporate email policy. Think, whether an email could be substituted by a short call instead. If email is sent to a larger group of people mark clearly, who is added for information only and who’s respond you are expecting. As with meetings – respect your and other people’s time and think critically before writing and sending emails. Some easy rules, common sense ultimately, could save a significant amount of time.
Make a realistic plan
The best way to avoid the firefighting is to foresee the risks and prevent fire situation from happening. In order to do it, you need time and concrete actions. After we freed up the time from useless meetings and emails its time to plan for the real things. Previously I had only meetings marked in my calendar. Now I prepared a plan for the next month marking all activities I needed to perform, starting with regular meetings with the team and clients and ending with time I needed to spend on a preparation of presentations or any administration tasks. Of course, you can be flexible with preplanned administrative activities and maybe even squeeze an ad hock meeting to your day now and then, but the plan gives you a clear overview of the time you need to spend to move forward. It also gives a great feeling of control over your actions, time and life.
Our working day, as our time on this earth overall, is limited. You can dream big and have hundreds of ideas, but you need to prioritize your goals, plans and related activities for shorter periods of time. I used to prepare a priority list for the month and agree on it with higher powers on hierarchical stairs. Concrete priority list helps you to focus on the most important projects. If something burningly ad hock comes into your professional life, you can communicate clearly and honestly to all stakeholders, that you will deal with the new urgency, but this will mean that priorities will change and something previously planned will be addressed later. Time is limited. And you need to spend your energy wisely to run a professional marathon, not a sprint ended with burn-out.
This summer I hiked in Yosemite National Park, USA. The road to Glacier Point, a magnificent viewpoint over Yosemite Valley was closed for a couple of days due to fires in the forests. Luckily, during our last day of visit, fires were taken under control and the road was opened. The view from the cliff to the waterfalls and mountains was breathtaking and majestic. It was one of these moments, when you feel totally alive and just enjoy every second spent in this magical environment. As in travel, same in corporate life, you just need to overcome the fire to see the big picture, new horizons and perspectives.