Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes about leadership, management and startups for WRAL TechWire. His columns appear on Wednesdays.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – One of many things the past year has shown us is the high value of productivity and urgency in innovation. As leaders, it’s critical that we model productive behavior while also teaching others the best ways to deliver meaningful results, quickly and efficiently. Although many executives tend to focus on strategic thinking, creative problem solving and communication skills, I find that the one leadership superpower most closely tied to goal achievement is productivity – how a person manages their time. 

Teaching productivity to your team is similar to the way that students are taught to approach an important test, like the SAT or GRE. Yes, your score from those tests will depend on what you know, but equally important is your test-taking strategy — how you manage your time, how you skip tricky questions, and how you quickly check your work to make sure it’s the best it can be before you hand it in. Are you letting yourself get bogged down in one or two answers that you don’t know the answers to? Or are you approaching the test with a method that will keep you moving forward at a steady pace?

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We’ve all had those moments in business when there are lots of ideas floating around and a bunch of projects started but not finished. In my experience, the most successful people deliver high-quality business results by spending their time in the most productive way possible and pressing forward despite the roadblocks. That means approaching work with a list of high-priority items and a method for making the most of your time. The following tips have helped shape my approach and have allowed me to move forward in business and in life.

Name your priorities

Stephen Covey, the productivity mastermind behind “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” used to do this powerful demonstration about why it’s critical that we organize our priorities if we ever want to get important things done. It’s called Put First Things First. In it, he gives a person one large glass container, which represents our limited time, and a huge number of big and small rocks that the person has to fit inside. The big rocks are the things that are actually important. The small rocks are things that feel urgent or distracting. If you add the little rocks to the container first, the big ones won’t fit. But, if you put the big ones first — if you block time for the things that really matter — the little stuff will still fit into the cracks. 

What’s critical is that you sit down every week, month, quarter and year to figure out which few things are really going to move the needle for you, both personally and professionally. As my friend, the executive coach John Murphy puts it, “If you don’t block time, your goals are just a wish-list.” But, when you understand which two to three things are most important for you to prioritize, you can also see which tasks need to be delegated to others. Name your priorities, keep them in focus, and help the people on your team do the same.

Eliminate excuses

If you know me, you know I have a high tolerance for failure. I’m almost always willing to test an idea to see what works in the market. If the idea turns out to be a flop, that’s ok; I’m sure I’ll learn something in the process. Recently, my team had the chance to build a new product that would require significant resources but also showed high potential for impact. I talked about the idea in a meeting, and there was some pushback. People questioned whether we had the bandwidth to take it on. And to be honest, I wasn’t sure if we did.

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In these cases, I ask myself and my team a specific series of questions and answers. 

  • First, if we add this offering, what is the impact? In this case, it was high. 
  • Second, if done well, is this a market differentiator? My answer: yes.
  • Third, are we capable of executing this independently? For this project, maybe.
  • And fourth, what is the cost of researching and building an initial road map? Just to get started, I’d say 80 hours.

By answering these questions, we determined that, with 80 hours from a talented intern or contractor, we could audit the current market around this product, build a framework for resourcing and create a plan to move forward. The intern could assist with the research, and I could report back to my team with a more thorough understanding of how to get the ball rolling. So, for a relatively small budget, we were able to get started on a potentially game-changing initiative and give the team the time they needed to wrap their heads around the project before we moved into it full-speed.

The key element here is to listen, brainstorm solutions with your team, and be encouraging through your questions. As a leader, your job is to deliver breakthrough thinking and to quantify the costs of moving forward. Don’t stifle innovation or productivity by focusing on why something can’t be done. Instead, push creative ways for your team to buy time for innovation, and don’t let excuses derail their productivity or creativity. 

Surround yourself with productive people

Spending time with unproductive people will make you unproductive too. It’s easier and more fun to mentor people who gain energy from challenges, so stack your team with people who enjoy solving problems and who won’t let roadblocks get in their way. When those high-performers are working effectively and efficiently, you all benefit from increased productivity. 

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My drive for productivity influences who I hire, who I spend my time with and who I’m willing to listen to. As a leader, I recruit, reward and retain people who love solving problems, and I model that behavior myself. I look for people who are dependable, ready to grow, and unafraid to bring issues forward with pace. I surround myself with people who have big ideas and the confidence needed to really push the envelope. That way, I know we’ll all push each other toward greater productivity. 

The key is to understand that productivity is an ongoing practice. It requires that we consistently embrace our own personal development, regularly review and refresh our own priorities while also teaching our teams the best methods to approach their work. These three tips will help you master those skills.

About the Author

Donald Thompson is an entrepreneur, public speaker, author, podcaster, Certified Diversity Executive (CDE) and executive coach. With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, he is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture, and driving exponential growth. He is also co-founder and CEO of The Diversity Movement, a results-oriented, data-driven strategic partner for organization-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Donald serves as a board member for several organizations in marketing, healthcare, banking, technology and sports. Connect with him on LinkedIn and at donaldthompson.com