Eat the Frog: Three Steps to Manage Priorities on a Team

By Mark McClain
frog

You’ve got to walk the talk as a leader, and sometimes that includes eating the frog. People who steer the ship do essential things for the team: define strategy, ensure the right people are in the right seats on the bus (or ship if you want to keep with the nautical theme), and make the whole team aligned through regular, effective communication. While these are all critical things leaders do, I think there is one action a leader can do that is the most important: facing risks and challenges in the business head-on.

Mark Twain once said, “If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.” In this case, the frog is your most important action item (the one we typically like to put off). I would guess that, for most of us, addressing difficult challenges head-on falls in the “let’s put this off” category.

Whether you lead a department, a few team members, or manage an intern, you will regularly face such challenges that you don’t want to address. These bubbles of risk, if left unattended, can threaten the operations of your well-oiled machine.  Leaders recognize these challenges early—and if they deal with them sooner rather than later, they never become actual threats.

It is human nature to prioritize things based on their urgency. The trick is to make sure that you are also ensuring that you are working on the urgent things that are also important. Our tendency is to sometimes focus on simple, tactical, urgent things at the expense of more impactful, important things. If you are a leader, you know that you often need to fight your initial instincts here and make the conscious choice to face the tough stuff first, not last.

There are three buckets leaders must consider when prioritizing their time:

  1. Things we must do
  2. Things we like to do
  3. Things we can do

Pro tip: In general, if something falls into one of the latter two categories, I try my best to entrust it to somebody else to ensure I am fulfilling my calling as a leader.  There are many things that only the leader can do, so if I find myself focusing on categories 2 and 3, I’ll fail to provide the leadership the organization needs. That said, not all non-critical tasks should be avoided. Sometimes, leaders must replenish their energy by doing some things that charge their emotional batteries. And sometimes, it’s OK to do something that could have been delegated, because you’re demonstrating a behavior, like “serving”. In the end, you’ll have to make your own choices about what falls into each category in your own world. But, in general, it’s still a good idea to eat the frog first.