How to be a really productive leader

18 January 2017 -


The latest in our series running up to the Management Book of the Year awards

By Management Book of the Year shortlisted author Grace Marshall

“How do we do more with less time?” is the age old ‘holy grail’. But maybe that’s the wrong question to ask.

As the pace of change, the volume of work and the deluge of emails continue to rise, here are five ways really productive leaders think differently:

1. Stop honouring busy. Start thinking impact

How often do we answer the question “How’s it going?” with “Busy!”

Busyness has become the norm, but it’s a poor judge of productivity. It’s not hard to be busy, but what are you busy with - real work that creates impact, or fake work that just keeps you busy?

In fact, "being busy and working lots of weekends could be a sign of being a terrible leader” says global HR executive Kristen Pressner, who is challenging her team to shift how they measure productivity from “How much am I doing?” to “What impact am I creating?"

2. Make the call on what you won’t do

Everything you say yes to has a cost to it. “As I say to my daughter,” says Pressner, "You can’t dance at two parties at the same time.” One question she’s learned to ask herself is “Is that for me to do? Just because it’s good for it to be done, doesn’t mean it’s for me to do."

If saying ‘no’ doesn’t come naturally to you, try saying ‘yes’ on your own terms.

Anna Hammond, a deputy executive who works in the NHS finds that saying “this is what I can do for you” rather than “I can’t do that” enables her to push back in a positive way that still gives people what they need.

3. Manage your availability

If you’re constantly available, you’re never fully available. Being a manager means supporting your team but some of your best support also comes from the work you do away from everyone else.

As Hammond found, “I do my best work when I have total focus. I have days when I take myself out of the office to do that work, and I accept that the days when I’m in the office I am going to be ‘harassed’ - and that’s what I’m there for!”

4. Connect the dots between recovery and productivity

As human beings we are not designed to work continuously without breaks. Recovery is a crucial part of our job. Recharging is not a luxury; it is fuel for our productivity.

“I know what I need with sleep, exercise and what I eat, to be at my best. I can fight it or accept it.” says Pressner, who’s recently taken a promotion to global head of human resources. For the same reason, Hammond’s NHS workplace has been reclaiming the lunch hour and introducing eight week mindfulness courses.

5. Involve your team in the productivity conversation

In an ideal world, we'd get ourselves perfectly organised, know exactly what we need to do, be 100% focused, get it done, and go home. In the real world, none of us work in a bubble. We rely on other people in order to get our work done well, and they rely on us too.

Productivity is much more than a one-person conversation. Is it time for you to start that conversation with your team?


Grace Marshall is the author of How To Be Really Productive, which is shortlisted in the Commuter’s Read category of the 2017 Management Book of the Year awards

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