If you're an ambitious person, you'll inevitably hit a wall. Sounds pessimistic, but it's actually a sign you're doing something right. At points throughout your career, you're guaranteed to feel overwhelmed, burned out, uncertain, and defeated. You're the kind of person who takes on as much as you can in any given role — so it's not surprising people keep giving you new things to do, new problems to solve. Whether you get to move up, however, depends on what you do next.
This might be about becoming a manager and building larger and larger teams — but not necessarily. If you're an individual contributor, it could mean taking on new levels of influence, being handed tougher challenges — becoming a leader at your company even with no direct reports. Regardless, you're likely to find yourself looking at your current role, looking ahead to the role you want (or at others who have it), and wondering how in the hell you'll be able to get there when you're already buckling under the weight of your work.
The key is being able to scale yourself. Not just your skills, but also your energy, the way you manage your time, how you delegate, how you recharge, how you teach others, and more. Here at the Review, we talk to a lot of people who've felt the way you do now — people who've navigated these inflection points in their careers to make serious impact in the industry. Below are a collection of rut-busting interviews highlighting the habits, processes, and actions they've used to grow themselves as leaders. We hope they do the same for you.
Everyone talks about time management, but energy management is the hidden key to getting more done. Energy is not just one thing, however. According to executive coach Katia Verresen (who's fostered the careers of leaders at Facebook and across startups), there are three types of energy that build on each other:
Physical Energy: The foundation of everything you do. It's the type of energy that's most easily influenced but most often neglected (i.e. “All I’ve had today is Diet Coke,” “I can totally function on three hours of sleep”).
Emotional Energy: How you're feeling at any given moment — excited, anxious, hopeless, etc. It dictates more than half of your behavior and decision making.
Mental Energy: The highest order of energy, only achievable when you have the physical and emotional stamina to be observant, perceptive, and focus.
When these three buckets build on each other, people have a chance to reach what Verresen calls their “performance-plus” state. Some might call it flow, or “the zone” — it's that fluid productivity that can exponentially increase what you’re capable of as a leader in much less time.
Very few leaders think this way. They rely on themselves to be intellectually sharp on bad diets. They go into fundraising pitches hobbled by self-doubt and anxiety. They host all-hands when their energy dips in the late afternoon. And in so doing, they limit their potential, Verresen says. The good news is that past patterns and habits can shift.
In this article, she teaches you how to audit your own energy throughout the day — the questions you should ask yourself, how you should record responses, and how to make meaning out of this data. Then she walks through how to rebuild your calendar and how you think about scheduling big meetings and big decisions around this information.
If it was true that people can't change, we wouldn't have some of the most amazing companies we have today.
Double down on Verresen's wisdom with this article on how abundant thinking can change your mindset to be a better leader as well.
Several years ago, First Round Partner Bill Trenchard gave the quintessential talk about how CEOs and founders can use 70% of their time better. There's a lot to learn from it, including hacks for spending 50% less time on email (with tools like Sanebox and TextExpander), new ways to make the most of meetings, and tips to build playbooks of your knowledge. But the advice that tends stands out the most for folks — because it's relevant to everyone — is how to say no.
Saying no is so hard. It’s hard because you want to pay it forward. So many people have helped you. You want to do the same. But you have to draw the line somewhere, and there are ways to make it easier.
Trenchard suggests “No” templates — canned responses for all the common situations where you find yourself saying no. He first heard about the idea from entrepreneur and investor Mark Suster, and it’s saved him immeasurable time and anxiety. Here’s a generic example:
Great to hear from you. Hope all is well. Fortunately, my company is starting to take off [or whatever is going well for you right now]. Unfortunately I won’t be able to connect right now. I’m under a lot of pressure to deliver against some ambitious goals. I hope you'll understand.
Devising templates lets you put the time and attention you want into crafting a response. You just don’t have to do it every time. The important thing is that you close the door to further communication. Do it nicely in a way that truthfully explains the situation, but don’t leave things open-ended.
To get even more of your time back, craft templates for each of the common occasions you find yourself declining. Requests for coffee from people who want to learn about your role. Invitations to events that aren't relevant. Have the right response at the ready, and maybe even use TextExpander to fire it off within seconds. For more time-saving advice from Trenchard, read on here.
Adam Pisoni fits the mold described in the intro of this article almost exactly. When he was CTO of Yammer, he says he was so busy making sure every little thing was working that he didn't get a chance to think about the big, strategic things that would make a difference for the company. He was addicted to solving all the problems that came across his desk.
Here's the real danger: As a leader, you'll probably feel great about how busy you are. It feels like you're adding so much value, when it's just a sign that shit is rolling up hill to you too quickly.
If he was going to scale as a leader, he needed to stop being the bottleneck for decisions and progress to be made. His goal became to build structures, processes and rhythms at the company that didn't depend on his involvement, and ideally would eventually make his presence obsolete.
One of the most powerful things he did was establish battle rhythms — i.e. a regular candence of meetings around a few critical parts of the company where the most momentum could be gained. He developed regular meetings to evaluate roles and responsibilities, monitor the status of high-level goals for the company, plan and prioritize what should come next, manage emerging tensions to create alignment, and reflect on past work done to learn and get better.
This helped him learn to delegate smaller problems, and kept the company on track. Most importantly, it took him out of the decision-making process for choices that others should have been making, and significantly reduced not just his own, but the entire company's decision debt.
"As a leader, you can't make decisions as fast as you're faced with them," says Pisoni, now founder and CEO of Abl Schools. "You'll just accrue decision debt and think it's your job to get out of it by making decisions faster and faster. Instead, make it your job to build structure so decision debt doesn't accrue in the first place." Read the whole piece here.
Dave Girouard is a proponent of speed. Now CEO and Founder of Upstart, he's known for leading Google's Enterprise Apps division, where he saw many big decisions get made by the likes of Eric Schmidt and Larry Page. And his conviction coming out of that experience is this: Speed is the ultimate weapon in business. All else being equal, the fastest company in any market will win. Speed is a defining characteristic — if not the defining characteristic — of the leader in virtually every industry you look at.
In this Review article (now shared over 23,000 times), Girouard goes into detail about making speed a cornerstone of your company. And his recommendations are simple, clear, and easily adopted. The one that has made the vital difference for him in the past is: "Challenge the when."
"I’m always shocked by how many plans and action items come out of meetings without being assigned due dates," he says. "Even when dates are assigned, they’re often based on half-baked intuition about how long the task should take. Completion dates and times follow a tribal notion of the sun setting and rising, and too often 'tomorrow' is the default answer."
It’s not that everything needs to be done NOW, but for items on your critical path, it’s always useful to challenge the due date. All it takes is asking the simplest question: “Why can't this be done sooner?” Asking it methodically, reliably and habitually can have a profound impact on the speed of your organization. More from Girouard on speed here.
I believe that speed, like exercise and eating healthy, can be habitual.
Roli Saxena is in charge of a lot of things at Clever: sales, customer success and support, business operations. The list goes on. Before that, she oversaw LinkedIn's North American sales division. She's one of those people who has the job that makes you stare and wonder, 'How does she do it?' So it's comforting to hear her talk vulnerably and candidly about how she's hit walls in the past and learned to push through them.
One of the most helpful things for her was applying frameworks to remove responsibilities from her plate and make sure she was focused only on the tasks that both needed her and that would be impactful for the business. Here's a CliffNotes version of the exercise she runs for herself regularly:
THE PRIORITIZATION MATRIX
This is a framework executives at LinkedIn used all the time, and now, as Saxena puts it, “Everything in my life revolves around this.” She turns to it regularly to decide how to handle various tasks ahead of her.
Once Saxena has mapped out all her projects on the matrix, she starts making decisions. She immediately drops and cancels anything that fell into Quadrant 3. Then she moves on to Quadrant 4, surveys her team, looks for steady junior people who would relish the opportunity to learn and help out with more, and assigns them the housekeeping tasks.
She’ll outsource anything in Quadrant 2 to the highest performers on the team after doing what she can to set them up for success.
Then there’s Quadrant 1 — the really hard stuff that needs to get done to make your business great. Usually it requires a lot of deep thought, collaboration, revision, and problem-solving. If you’re a leader, this is where your focus should live. This is where you have more context than anyone else and can have a major impact on the company yourself.
THE COMMUNICATION TEMPLATE
After you’ve completed your matrix assessment, you need to share your decisions with others. There’s a systematic way to do this as well that will make sure all expectations are aligned.
Create three side-by-side columns:
Column 1: Things I should and can be doing. This stuff is important and within your reach. Usually the projects you’ve identified in Quadrant 1 above.
Column 2: Things I said I’d do but am not doing. These are the items that have been languishing on your to-do list forever. They’re probably a combo of Quadrant 2 and 4 — easy home runs and housekeeping that you haven’t had a chance to focus on. This is often the root of a lot of stress.
Column 3: Things I should not be doing. All the projects in Quadrant 3 you want to nix. No matter how efficient you think you are, you probably won’t realize you have a few of these until you run an inventory on everything you’re doing. Maybe some of the housekeeping from Quadrant 4.
Everything in Column 1, you can tell people, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this. I’m going to carve out time to focus on it.”
Column 2 usually requires an apology of some sort. Maybe it’s you telling your boss or direct report, “I’m sorry, I can’t do it.” Treat the conversation as a negotiation, Saxena says. Explain why you haven’t gotten to those projects and why you think they should either be cancelled or take a back seat or be passed to someone else.
Column 3 can be taken care of with a series of simple emails informing the relevant people that a task has been eliminated, or that it’s been delegated to a new person who is now point.
This is just one of several recommendations Saxena has for heading burnout off at the pass. Read on for more here, but most importantly, she says, don't be afraid to admit you're overwhlemed. It's the first step to improving things.
“There are many things I’ve committed to in my career that, upon evaluation, I just couldn’t do,” she says. “That means the responsible thing is to keep reevaluating and making it clear when this is the case. Frequent communication is honest communication.”
Khalid Halim is a co-founder of Reboot, a coaching firm that’s worked with leaders at companies such as Coinbase, Lyft, Kickstarter and Etsy. Today, he specializes in helping leaders communicate more clearly with those around them — magnifying the impact they're able to make. In this Review article, he shares a number of meta models that have proven to be especially helpful tools for the CEOs he coaches. But to get you started, one of the first and best things you can do is determine whether you lean in one of these two directions:
Internally-referencing people make decisions based on their own internal standards. They say “only you can decide,” “you know it’s up to you,” “what do you think” and “you might want to consider,” as this language reflects how they make choices.
Externally-referencing people seek outside information and feedback to make choices. The language they use includes “_____ thinks,” “the impact will be,” “the feedback you’ll get,” “the approval you’ll get,” “others will notice” or “give references.”
To determine if you are internally- or externally-referencing, the silver bullet question to ask is “How do you know you've done a good job (at _______)?”
This is extremely helpful to know about oneself and those around you to scale as a leader. Understanding this will help you find greater motivation where you're already primed to look for it, and it will allow you to be extremely effective and persuasive in conversations with others when you know which way they're oriented.
“If you’re talking to a person who is internally motivated, you can't actually convince her of anything without her tapping into her personal experience. So, if I'm having a conversation with her about a decision for the company, I’ll need to reference a time before when the company did something and she changed her mind. Action will come from her knowing and recollection of that moment, not my convincing of her to do it,” says Halim. “On the other hand, appealing to externally-referencing people means giving your opinion and citing outside references."
This is just the beginning of the Review's wisdom on how to become a more efficient and productive leader. Check out the full articles referenced above as well as others on how happiness can power up your leadership, how to better delegate at every stage of company growth, and how to manage different employees toward different goals.
Photo by Caiaimage/Andy Roberts/Getty Images.