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Top 3 tips for improving your time management skills

white rabbit

While working with a team of sales managers recently I asked them what part of their jobs they found most difficult.  The answer came back loud and clear – ‘time management!’  These guys (yes, they were all men) were working long hours and were expected to meet challenging sales targets.  Some of them were responsible for managing other people and all of them had various additional duties such as managing budgets, running meetings, attending exhibitions etc.  It struck me that, no matter how experienced we are, or how familiar we are with the basic principles of good time management, we tend to forget everything we have been taught when the going gets tough.  We go into fire-fighting mode, we abandon our plans, we stop communicating with others and we neglect our own well-being.  Even the most experienced business leaders need regular reminders to encourage them to plan well, manage themselves and prioritise effectively.  Here are my three top tips for ensuring that, even when under pressure, your time is managed wisely and effectively.

Time management tip #1 – Plan!

Most people don’t plan well, and yet good planning is at the heart of effective time management.  Start with your overall goal – maybe your goal for the year.  Is it to grow your business? Launch a new product? Enter a new market?  Goals give you something to commit to and they will guide your decision-making.  Make sure your goal is SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timed.   The key question to ask yourself is what will your world look like in a year’s time when you have achieved your goal?  How many new customers will you have? What level of financial improvement will you see?  These outcomes will be the measures of your success and progress towards these measures should be regularly monitored.

When you have described your overall goal work out what specific steps you must take to achieve your goal.  Make these steps as specific and practical as possible and put them in a time-frame.  For instance, “Hire a PA by end January” or “Design new page for website by April”.  Work out who you need to involve in these activities and communicate your intentions to them.

Write your plan down and keep the document as a key point of reference to monitor progress.  Some people are reluctant to write an action plan but if it is written well, and if you keep it under review and update it, it will help to keep you focussed.

Time management tip #2 – Prioritise

President Eisenhower said ‘Most things which are urgent are not important, and most things which are important are not urgent’.  If you have set your goals and written your action plan you should have a clear idea of what is important.  However, stuff always gets in the way of the best laid plans, demanding your time and attention and distracting you from essential tasks.  In these situations you need to be ruthless about prioritising, by identifying what you must do and what you can ignore or leave for another time.  Ask yourself:

  • Is this really urgent?  If it absolutely must be done this week, without fail, then go ahead and get it done.  If it can wait for a week allocate some time to get it done – put it in your planner or diary and then move on – it’s dealt with, don’t think about it anymore.
  • Is it really important?  What are the consequences of not getting this done?  If they are truly serious then the task is important and you should do it now or allocate a time to get it done.

Urgent tasks which are not important are often imposed on you by someone else with their own  priorities  – meetings, phone calls  and emails come into this category.   In such cases you need to decide how important the activity, or the relationship with the person driving it, is to you.  If you conclude that it is not so important then consider whether the task can be delegated to someone else.

Tasks which are not urgent but important  are the ones that should be given time and attention.  Such tasks might involve planning, preparation, getting some exercise, relationship-building.  All these activities will help you to get control over your time.  If you don’t plan for these activities and build them into your schedule they will at best become urgent at a later date, or at worst result in a crisis or failure.

Time management tip #3 – Delegate

Even if you work on your own or in an isolated role there are always opportunities to delegate.  If it is managed properly delegation can bring so many rewards – more time for you to spend on important stuff, greater efficiencies and staff who are motivated by acquiring new skills.  If you are doing things that other people could be doing just as well then you are not using your time effectively.

Here are the basic steps to take when delegating:

  • Make a list of tasks that could be delegated.
  • Consider who could possibly do the job – this might be someone who has the potential to develop or someone who has some free time (if you’re self-employed you could consider outsourcing)
  • Be prepared to brief the person thoroughly.  Explain to them exactly why you are delegating the task and put the task in context so that the person understands the big picture and the overall objective.
  • Set the parameters.  How much authority do they have?  When would you like them to report back or check in with you? What are the timescales?
  • Monitor.  This doesn’t mean interfering or constantly checking and correcting.  Just keep an eye on progress – you can set up regular review meetings depending on the size and nature of the task.

Delegation gives you more time but we often shy away from it as we think it’s easier simply to do it ourselves.  But if you are prepared to invest time in briefing others who have the skills or the motivation to help you the payback is significant.  However, don’t use delegation as a means of dumping all the unpleasant jobs that you don’t want to do – you won’t get the support you need if that’s your attitude!

Effective time management requires a lot of discipline, a high awareness of those things that waste your time and some persistence.  You have to be motivated to achieve your goals, but if you start with a good plan, know the difference between urgent and important, and delegate wherever you can you will achieve your goals more quickly – without burnout!

Why people resist change


When managing change in business the focus is so often on monitoring time, money and process. It’s true that good project management skills are essential to successful change management, but we also need to lead people through the process and this involves understanding how human beings react to change.

The behaviour of my friend’s three year old daughter, Anna, illustrates the point. My friend was moving out of London to a bigger house in the country. She had told her daughter about the move but Anna had not reacted well and was refusing to enter into any discussions about her new life in the country. My friend explained to me that, every morning on the walk to Anna’s nursery in London, they passed a primary school. In the playground of this school were three bright yellow swings. “That’s the school I want to go to so that I can play on those swings” Anna had said. Her interest in swings seemed to be at the heart of her resistance to moving. Realising this, my friend checked out the primary school that her daughter would be attending in the country. Not only did this school have swings in the playground but also a climbing frame and a sandpit! She took Anna to see the school and the three year old was immediately converted. As the day of the move grows closer they have been visiting the new school as often as they can to maintain Anna’s enthusiasm. My friend’s daughter is now looking forward to her new life in the country – everyone is happy!

Although this story appears to be far removed from the complexities of the workplace, it does demonstrate some of the most fundamental principles of effectively managing and leading people through change.

1. Clearly articulate the benefits of change to your team. “We are moving and it’s going to be great” is not good enough. Human beings are naturally resistant to change and will not co-operate unless they understand and feel excited by the end goal.

2. Don’t assume that your enthusiasm for change is going to be shared by others. When talking about the new future think about what will motivate different people to support the project. Anna didn’t share her mother’s excitement about the new house, but she could become very enthusiastic about new swings! Similarly, in an ICT change programme for example, your Board of Directors might be turned on by the prospect of a good looking new website whereas, for your Finance team, the prospect of more streamlined processes for invoicing is more likely to motivate them to support change. Amend your change message for different audiences, find out what life looks like from their perspective, and highlight the benefits that will appeal directly to them.

3. Try to make your vision of the new future as clear and tangible as possible. My friend didn’t just talk to Anna about the new school, she took her there so that Anna could see for herself. Can you make the benefits of change come alive for your team?

4. Remind your team of the long term vision and the benefits of change at regular intervals. When the going gets tough and the end seems a long way off it is easy to lose sight of the overall goal. Keep that goal at the front of people’s minds to maintain their morale and motivation.

When dealing with adults it is useful to remember that some of the most childish instincts are at the heart of resistance to change. If you understand and deal with these instincts you have a much better chance of leading a motivated, supportive team through the change process.

Join the JPA Master Class “Managing change without the pain” on 20 May 2014 

Specialists in leadership and responsible management

JPA’s consultancy services are based on our experience and understanding of people, their development and their relationships in business, particularly during periods of significant change.

Our approach is based on the philosophy that effective human performance in business (including effective leadership) is achieved by a holistic approach to learning which combines knowledge, experience and skills. The opportunities for working on all three together are so often missed, each one being treated in isolation.

At JPA we look at integrated growth: using skills and experience, for example, to develop knowledge in a specific area. Our philosophy is to develop a more strategic approach to organisational development, focusing on initiatives that draw together and utilise all the components of the person, situation and company in order to really make a difference.

We believe it has proven not only to be a more effective, accelerated approach to staff development but also one that has greater equity for the long term.

How to make a million jobs

This week I was delighted to support and sponsor the launch of a provocative and insightful book – “How to make a million jobs” by Colin Crooks.  You can order a copy here. Colin is a social entrepreneur who, in his book, challenges all of us to think differently about unemployment and its causes.  His solutions are radical but not unrealistic and are based on Colin’s experiences as well as persuasive, independent evidence.

As a leadership specialist, working with corporates, professional associations and universities, it is not immediately clear why I should decide to sponsor such a book.

The main reason is that I share with the book’s author a concern about people and their development.  I also believe in the capacity for people to change their attitude and behaviour and to learn new skills.

The book is full of real stories about people, young and old, who had given up all hope of finding work.  They were poorly educated, lacked confidence and had few social or employability skills.  When these people were offered an opportunity to work and when this was accompanied by some support and encouragement they responded positively.  Many went on to better jobs and have not looked back.

The book, and my own experience, demonstrates this: that when people at work are supported and developed in the right way they tend to be good employees.  They become committed, engaged, interested and keen to learn.   They gain in confidence and in ambition.   Of course there are always exceptions.  But, in general, we know this simple statement of cause and effect to be true.

The problem is that so many employers do not have the commitment or the capability to provide the support required.  The challenge for government, policy makers and anyone with an interest in this area, is to change the attitude of employers.   We need to be better at getting employers to truly appreciate and realise the business benefits of developing their people. Then we need employers to be better at motivating, supporting and engaging their staff.  Employers should be asking whether they and their managers are managing people effectively and providing good role models to all staff.

The people in Colin’s book were fortunate to be taken on by a good employer with good people management skills.  Sadly that’s not true of all employers, and many people entering a new job do not get the support and development they need.

Developing people and changing their behaviour requires patience, and this isn’t easy in the current climate where many companies are driven by an obsession with short term results.  But understanding that link: between managing people effectively and building a successful business is fundamental to good leadership.  It informs everything I do and it is at the heart of Colin Crooks’ book.

No-Nonsense Networking:
Six Steps to Raising Your Profile

A free eBook by Jeanette Purcell

Through thirty years of experience in business and academia and countless conversations with great networkers, I have observed that surprisingly few people network effectively. Yet good networking skills are essential if you want to get on in business and have a fulfilling career.

This is why I wrote this book. 22 pages full of practical tips and ideas on how to build long-lasting successful business relationships. It is for anyone who wants to grow their business, extend their business networks or raise their profile within their profession or working environment. If you are looking for a job or preparing for promotion, this book is also for you.

In No-Nonsense Networking, I take you through a practical approach to building a successful network in six easy steps:

1. Developing the right attitude.

You need to approach networking in a positive frame of mind. We debunk some of the myths about networking and deal with the common issues that hold people back from being enthusiastic and confident networkers.

2. Preparing your pitch.

With the right attitude and a clear idea of what you want to achieve from your networking you are ready to write your ‘pitch’. We look at how to tell your story and present your skills in a concise, positive and memorable way.

3. Managing your existing networks.

It’s not only about making new connections but also about managing your existing contacts. How well are you managing and tapping into your existing networks?

4. Preparing to network.

Successful face-to-face networking begins with thorough preparation. We will cover the preparation required for every networking situation.

5. Networking events.

From social gatherings to business meetings we look at how to manage networking situations, make the right connections and get results.

6. Building and maintaining the relationship.

Truly successful networks require maintenance. We consider the follow up required to convert a new connection into a productive business relationship and how to sustain and grow your networks over the long term.

Each step is explained in comprehensive detail, with achievable exercises at the end of every section. After reading this book, you will be better equipped to network confidently, successfully and intelligently.

Download for free

You can download this eBook for free from any of the following sources (click on the icons to open in a new window).

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Download for free from Amazon Kindle Store, iBooks or as a PDF

About the author

Jeanette Purcell is the founder and Managing Director of Jeanette Purcell Associates, specialists in leadership development and change management. She is a leadership specialist, providing coaching, lecturing and consultancy services in all aspects of leadership development and organisational change. Her focus is on giving leaders and their organisations practical solutions that have a measurable impact on performance.

Jeanette is a Visiting Lecturer at Cass Business School and has over 30 years practical experience in management and business leadership. Until establishing her own business, Jeanette was Chief Executive of the Association of MBAs (AMBA), the global accreditation agency and network for MBA students and graduates. In this role she succeeded in raising the profile of the MBA as the premier qualification for business leaders and developed a range of services and support for MBA graduates throughout the world.

Jeanette is an accomplished international public speaker. She presents and writes on issues relating to leadership, business development and business education and has been instrumental in the delivery of Cass Leadership programmes in Dubai. Current corporate clients include Pfizer International where Jeanette delivers ‘networking skills’ training to high potential female managers.

In 2013 Jeanette founded the Brain Exchange, an exclusive forum for business professionals to exchange advice, knowledge and support in a confidential and professional environment. The Brain Exchange meets monthly in London and is achieving growing recognition as a high quality business network.

Lessons in responsible leadership

Developments in the phone hacking inquiry raise more questions about the moral responsibility of leaders.  In fact this news item, coming after a succession of scandals involving financial institutions and corrupt MPs,  will ensure that the debate around business ethics and corporate responsibility will continue for some time.

I am intrigued by Rebekah Brooks’ statement that she had “no knowledge” of the phone hacking taking place at the News of the World when she was in charge of the paper.   It might be argued that leaders of large complex organisations can’t be expected to know everything.  Max Clifford, probably the UK’s best known publicist and now in jail, came to the defence of Ms Brooks saying she may not have known every detail about day to day goings on in the company.   To some extent this is true.  We all know of disastrous bosses who attempt to micro manage, not trusting managers to get on with the job and attempting to control everything.   Such an approach to leadership just doesn’t work.  As a boss you can’t know and do it all – without effective delegation and trust the business simply won’t move forward.  Furthermore, staff working for a control freak will quickly lose any commitment or motivation to do a good job.

So where do you draw the line?   How can leaders make it their business to know what’s going on in their organisation while at the same time allowing others the right amount of discretion and autonomy?     Well, there are many ways of keeping your ear to the ground so that you don’t lose touch with the day to day: regular meetings and chats with staff (formal and informal);  asking questions now and again, especially when something doesn’t ‘feel right’;  being quite clear with others about what you do and don’t need to know;  effective communication processes; and so on.

But a more fundamental solution lies in the articulation and communication of values and then firmly embedding these in the organisation.   Responsible management involves a commitment to transparency and honesty.   Leaders should be clear about their own values, their expectations of others and preferred ways of working.   I have worked with businesses where staff are actively involved in the identification and communication of values – it’s not always possible but it’s the best way of getting ‘buy in’ and real commitment.  Once established, these values become central to everything the business does, from the way customers are treated to the recruitment and promotion of staff.    Clear values help to inform decision-making.   Where risky or controversial decisions are concerned, reference to values can often help identify the ‘right’ solution.

I don’t know whether Rebekah Brooks or News Corporation have ever given a thought to their values or moral code.  Somehow I doubt it.  If they had, they wouldn’t be in such a mess now.  More importantly many people, including Milly Dowler’s family, might have been saved so much unnecessary distress.

Can you recognise talent in your team?


Recruitment is a costly process for most businesses. Yet so often companies start the recruitment process without fully considering the potential they have internally.

The advantages of identifying and promoting talent from within the business are numerous: you save on the cost of recruitment, you avoid the risk of taking on someone who is unknown to the company and its culture, you significantly reduce the time required for induction or ‘learning the ropes’ and, by promoting internally, you reduce the risk of losing good ambitious staff who might be feeling stuck in their role. 

The reason given for not promoting internally is often that no one in the current team meets the requirements of the job. But think carefully – a more proactive approach to staff development and engagement will help to seek out the talent and potential in your company that you probably didn’t realise was there.

Most people can think of instances when they or someone they know have been working away in a position which does not allow them the opportunity to shine or to demonstrate what they really have to offer. They may be in a job that doesn’t make the best use of their skills, they may be poorly managed and have not been encouraged to take on new challenges. Whatever the reason, hidden potential can be unearthed by committing to a straightforward staff development programme.  Staff development programmes help to keep your best staff by engaging them in development opportunities and getting them to think about how they can improve and grow with the company.  A good staff development programme takes some planning but the return on your investment in a programme is significant.  You save on recruitment costs, you attract good people to your company and you engage and develop top talent from within.

Of course, there is another benefit from adopting a proactive approach to developing your talent  – it tends to show up those people in your team who are not cut out for promotion or who simply do not have the level of commitment you’re looking for. Dealing with these people is crucial and represents the other, less talked about, side of effective talent management.

How to manage the pain of change


While working on a major change management project I have been thinking about the nature of change and what it takes to manage the process successfully. It strikes me that many businesses struggle with an apparent tension between the desire to define their organisation’s strategy and structure for the foreseeable future, and the recognition that their world is in a constant state of flux. Of course the harsh reality is that, while the long term vision can remain constant, a company’s strategy must be flexible and capable of modification to reflect ever-changing internal and external environments.

The issues that arise in any change project are as much to do with people as process. Leading transformation successfully involves a deep understanding of people and their behaviour, knowing what is likely to motivate people to do things differently, why they resist change and how to communicate effectively throughout the process. It also involves identifying the people who are going to help you in your mission (the ‘change champions’) and those who are likely to generate conflict and hostility. The process nearly always involves taking some tough decisions about people and are likely to lead to difficult conversations with those who cannot cope with the transformation or the planned future. These people issues are probably the most difficult for any leader to manage successfully. What can we do to help people through change?

The process works best if your team works in an environment that enables change. In such a setting they are more likely to respond positively to the change you want to make. To create a ‘change-ready’ environment consider the following:

• Regularly set the expectation that things will change and continue to change

• Explicitly encourage and recognise behaviours that support or enable change

• Support continuous innovation and improvement in working practices

• Give your team familiarity with change. Involve them in change projects

• Establish a culture that values flexibility and encourages flexible ways of working . In this way people are less inclined to feel they own a job or have various entitlements that might hold up the change process.

Change projects may be large scale but never forget that change happens at the individual level. You can’t necessarily deal with everyone individually but certain steps should be taken to consider how your people will fit into the new scenario. Consider the following questions for each person affected by the change:

• Do they understand the change and what it means for their role?

• Are they capable of working in the new set up? Who needs coaching or training?

• Are they willing to work in the new set up

• Are they motivated to work differently without reverting to the old ways of working

As the saying goes “We change our behaviour when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing.” Pain is an inevitable aspect of change. But however uncomfortable or difficult it may be, you must be able to manage change successfully. Change is not an occasional event but an ongoing part of every manager’s job.


What Margaret Thatcher did not do for women


I was twenty-two when Margaret Thatcher led the Conservative party to victory in the 1979 general election.  I opposed her politics and protested against many of her reforms including the destruction of the miners and the poll tax.  I never admired her and certainly never considered her a role model.

Now as I reflect on her life in politics and her legacy as the first female prime minister I remain convinced that she did nothing to further the cause of women in politics or in business.  Still only 22 per cent of UK MPs are women and only 22 per cent of senior management positions are held by women.   Margaret Thatcher might have demonstrated that it was possible to shatter the glass ceiling but she failed to help other women into leadership roles.  In fact it is said that she was a perfect example of “Queen Bee” syndrome – she did very well and enjoyed her position of power, but she did not particularly want other women to succeed too.

However, although it pains me to say it, I appreciate some of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership qualities.  She was a strong and formidable leader in a male dominated environment.  And unlike many women in managerial roles she cared not a jot about her own popularity.  Being liked was not Margaret Thatcher’s concern.  Rather she was driven entirely by her determination to reach the top and achieve her political goals.  There is some evidence to suggest that women who make it to a senior position in business are perceived as less likeable than men in the same role (see the Stanford  Business School experiment where the name of an entrepreneur in a business case study was changed from  Howard to Heidi and instantly became less likeable to the class of students than the male version Stanford Case Study).  Women at the top are often considered to be ‘aggressive’ where males displaying the same behaviour are simply seen as “assertive” or “confident”.  And this perception of successful female leaders can lead women to be over anxious about their popularity.

I am not suggesting that women should be more arrogant and insensitive in order to succeed as leaders.  A certain amount of empathy and emotional intelligence is important and helps leaders to get the best out of people.  And arguably, it was Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to acknowledge public opinion or to listen to those around her that caused her downfall in the end.  I am not advocating the “Margaret Thatcher style of leadership”.  I hated her politics and values.  But perhaps women would do well to take a very small leaf from Margaret Thatcher’s – try to care a little less about what others think of you.


How do you think you did?

After running a residential weekend on Leadership Skills for some MBA students I was keen to make sure they applied their learning when they got back to work.  I wanted them to commit to at least one action that would change the way they work and improve their management skills.  “So what are you going to differently tomorrow?” I asked.  The responses were many and various but were not specific enough for my liking.

“I’m going to try to listen more and talk less” one said. “I’m going to improve the way we make decisions in my organisation” offered another.  These were encouraging resolutions but were not specific enough for my liking.  Then one of the quieter members of the group said “Well from now on, whenever I am giving feedback or carrying out an appraisal, I’m going to start the conversation with ‘How do you think you did?’”.  It’s a little thing, but her words made my heart sing!

The weekend course had involved a lot of group work where individuals gave feedback to each other on their performance after each exercise.  At first they approached this by immediately reeling off a list of what they thought the other person did well and what they didn’t do well (sadly the emphasis was nearly always on the negatives).  However, I had been encouraging them to start each feedback session with a question: “How do you think you did?”.  Gradually, they got the hang of it and began to see the benefits of this approach.

There are many situations where managers are called on to comment on the performance of their staff.  It could involve one of those difficult conversations where concerns about performance need to be raised.  It might be part of a performance appraisal or it could just be because someone has asked you for feedback.  If the feedback is positive the conversation is fairly straightforward.  If not, the approach needs careful handling.

There are two main advantages of starting with the question “How do you think you did?”:


  • If things have gone wrong or there are performance problems there is a good chance that the other person will talk about these problems in their response to your question.  How much better is it for them to raise the issues rather than you?  Immediately you have been offered a way in to a discussion about why these problems came about and how they can be addressed.  Yes, I know that there are some people who will never own up to mistakes or short comings but in my experience most people are reasonably self-aware and, given the right environment, they are relatively honest.
  • If the performance issues are identified and raised by the other person, rather than you, there is a much better chance of them taking responsibility for the problem and doing something about it.  When a person is simply told that they’ve got something wrong, even though they might agree, they are more likely to question their manager’s judgement and go on the defensive.  In this situation they will feel much less inclined to address the issues, and so improving their performance becomes an uphill battle.

Giving feedback and managing performance involves a lot more than opening the discussion with a question.   But that question can make difficult conversations a whole lot easier.  I loved my group member for giving herself a simple practical action that she can implement immediately at work.   Just six words – “How do you think you did?” – can be surprisingly effective.



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