I had the pleasure of talking with Maren Kate Donovan, the CEO of Zirtual on a busy day in New York the other day, regarding some insights she's developed around executive productivity. She has distilled these down to 5 tips through things she's learned on her journey at Zirtual, where she has created a company that provides virtual assistant services to executives.
She's learned through trial & error, watching more experienced people, and interviewing others who were already doing the things to which she aspired - an approach I love. Here are her tips, along with some comments from me.
Maren's Top 5
1. "Hire people smarter than you." Put another way, Maren says , "Don't be the smartest person in the room." This is where you need to check your ego, and recognize that your success will be greater and more sustainable if you surround yourself with great people.
From my experience, this rings true. After all, haven't we all heard the old advice that if you want to get better at a sport, you need to play against someone better than you?
2. "Create a system of accountability." Set expectations by giving people a due date & time, and give them specifics about what you expect from them in terms of results. Maren says this will help drive greater organization and focus.
I think what Maren says is true, but I'd go one step further - accountability is a two-way street, in that you can expect it all you want, but the other person has to accept accountability for this to truly work. And that is where the clarity Maren describes comes into play: before you accept accountability for something, make sure you have a clear idea of what success looks like, and insist that you have the time, ability, and resources to deliver.
3. "Make sure your employees are familiar with your products." Maren believes it is vital that your employees understand your products, and how to use them. Additionally, she recommends you share your expectations of product quality, responsiveness to customers, and other aspects that will come into play as they do their jobs.
She explains: She often hires people who are experienced in "the business world," but when she brings them into her organization to function as virtual assistants (VA's), she needs to make sure they understand her expectations as a Zirtual VA. She put them through hands-on training as a VA with a mentor, so they can learn and get feedback in real-time. This higher touch model up-front pays dividends down the line, where they can work independently while still upholding Zirtual's standards.
I agree, of course, and believe this is critical to a couple of principles I hold near & dear: Know how your company makes money, and figure out what you need to do to stand out from your competition. I also believe strongly in mentor/apprenticeship types of training - there is no substitute for doing the work when you want to learn quickly.
4. "Use the 'I'd have a drink with this person' test." Maren believes part of success is in creating a connection with your employees and partners, and that you can tell if that is working by having a drink with them - whether that is coffee, tea, wine, etc. That activity builds rapport, camaraderie, and helps a culture gel in a way that establishes behavioral norms within your company. In other words, it is part of what makes it more than just a job. I find that this kind of approach also helps you develop a natural, corporate, immune system that helps people who don't fit in your company decide to move on to their next gig - and that can be a good thing, believe me.
5. "Figure out what people are good at and leverage their strengths." To continue along the lines of tip 4's theme of making work feel like "more than just a job," to keep people engaged, Maren suggests you spend time figuring out what your team members are good at and what they are passionate about. Keep in mind that this may take you beyond the job they were officially hired to do. She told me stories about people in her organizations that were financially-savvy and, even though their core job was something else altogether, she involved them in financial planning and analysis to keep them challenged and engaged.
I'm a big fan of this approach, too, because I believe it gets employees' creative juices going like nothing else. It also gives you the opportunity to cross-train people in your team and build bench strength in your organization. Furthermore, it helps with career progression, in that it makes it easier to provide more options for people who may want to move out of their current job into something new.
As a CEO herself, I asked Maren what her key advice is to new or aspiring CEO's. Here are her thoughts:
Read everything you can. Meet with other people who are doing what you're doing, or doing things you want to be doing. Spend time networking to learn - ask other leaders to lunch, coffee, or just a phone call to chat. Learn to use the power of delegation - for example, if you hire a virtual assistant for less than $20 an hour and your time is worth more than that, then you're wasting money by not finding ways to delegate tasks that don't play to your unique strengths.
Maren gives great advice, for sure, and I don't think its value is limited to C-level executives.
What about you? Do you have any best practices, practical advice, or tips for better time management? Please share!