Success is…not keeping on top of everything

by | Sep 12, 2022 | Leadership

Jack* approached me for coaching  because he’d recently been promoted to Head of Operations and was feeling overwhelmed.

He felt bombarded by demands from stakeholders and didn’t know how to navigate their competing priorities. He knew trying to please everyone was a thankless task, but he found it impossible to say no.

At my tennis club, there’s a ball machine that you can set up so it fires balls at you automatically at speed to practise your ground strokes.

When you’re in a senior role like Jack, it can feel like you’re surrounded by ball machines all firing at you and you’re frantically trying to catch and hold on to as many balls as you can, as well as scrabbling around trying to pick up the ones that have hit the ground.

The problem isn’t so much the volume of balls, but thinking that success is catching them all.

When I asked Jack what success would be for him, his answer was “not dropping balls” – in other words, keeping on top of everything.

“Everything” encompassed not only what he needed to do but all the demands from others that he felt he needed to meet.

People will always ask things of you and, of course, you have stakeholder expectations to meet and objectives to deliver. However, that doesn’t mean that every person’s request is your priority. 

Often, people throw a ball at you so that they can get it out of their court. And if you keep catching them, they’ll keep on throwing them knowing you won’t throw them back. 

As we talked, Jack realised that there were a number of balls that weren’t his priority but that he found difficult not to catch. Factors in his upbringing meant he’d developed a habit of trying to keep others happy. He found it difficult not to say yes to people’s requests of him, especially if there was an emotional context.

For example, Jack was often asked for help by a colleague who was often in a state mainly because she left things to the last minute. Jack ended up giving in to her because he felt guilty leaving her in distress, even though it wasn’t his problem to solve.

Your success may be dependent on dropping some balls.

Jack realised he could take a look at the balls landing in his court and decide whether they warranted attention now, whether to put them in his pocket to look at later or whether to throw them back into the other person’s court. And he realised it would be ok to let some balls drop altogether so he could focus on the important ones.

What’s important is knowing the balls that you need to play with, the balls that are going to make a difference. Those are the ones you want to keep and that will help you make decisions about other balls that get thrown your way.

The full-bodied no

We explored how Jack could experiment with dropping or throwing back balls – in other words, requests that weren’t priority to him right now.

Saying “no or “not right now” is easier said that done, and it isn’t just about saying the words. It’s about using your whole body.

When Jack gave in – for example, to the distressed colleague – his body seemed to collapse. When he said no like he meant it, he felt his feet on the ground, he breathed into his ribs and belly and he sat up straight with his shoulders back.

“The world hasn’t ended”

When Jack came to our next session, I asked him what it had been like to practise saying no.

Jack was delighted to report that the world hadn’t ended! He felt liberated by the realisation that he didn’t have to deal with all the balls that were being thrown at him.

He shared an example of where a direct report had asked for his help and, instead of doing what he normally did and saying yes, he said that he was busy right now and he could help later. When he checked in with his team member later in the day to offer his help, they said it was fine, they’d figured it out.

So not only had Jack honoured his own priorities, his team member had shown they were perfectly capable of finding the answer somewhere else. 

Your success is dependent on not trying to keep on top of everything.

It’s dependent on knowing what matters and being true to that even when you believe you’re letting people down. And that unhelpful belief will need to wait for a future post.

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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps senior managers and directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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