As part of our Women, Money and Impact series, we recently hosted a lunch-and-learn with business psychologist Camille Preston, CEO of AIM Leadership. Our luncheon topic was bandwidth management – how to manage our time, energy, and attention to not only stay abreast of work but also to plan and think strategically. Failing to manage bandwidth impacts everything, especially the ability to effectively prepare, work at our best, and execute on significant projects. To keep one’s head above water and juggle multiple balls and demands, leaders must cultivate the ability to focus their time, energy, and attention on what matters most.
The following are excerpts from that lunch-and-learn conversation with Camille.
Kathleen McQuiggan: How do you guide clients to think about bandwidth management?
Camille Preston: Across leaders, industries, and geographies, the most common and consistent challenge is the inability to manage bandwidth effectively. Here is an analogy I use to help clients understand bandwidth. A lot of stuff can flow through a pipe, but it’s still a finite space. If it’s clogged and backed up, you’re in trouble. After all, if you don’t have bandwidth, you can’t take perspective and clarify priorities. Because you’re already working at or over your capacity, you also can’t deal with the unexpected. Of course, in business, there are always unexpected challenges. This is why I argue that bandwidth management is the most critical leadership skill in today’s always-on, wired world.
KM: Is everyone’s journey on bandwidth management the same? Are there different mindsets we can operate under?
CP: We are the same to the extent that most people feel that their bandwidth is constrained due to more things vying for our attention than we can attend to. We’re all ducks in water–perhaps, we appear calm on the surface, but most of us are paddling furiously below the surface. What separates different individuals are three things. First, there is self-awareness. Some people just feel exhausted or anxious but don’t know why. Second, some people have more strategies to handle and deal with these demands. Finally, some people have the discipline to consistently use these strategies.
The first step is to build awareness–ask yourself, what is your energy, attention, and focus level? Next, find new and compelling distinctions about what enables you to be at your best. Also, heighten your awareness about things that may be draining your energy, attention, and focus. The second step is agility. You have to hone the ability to adapt, respond, and adjust–to work differently. The third step to managing your bandwidth is about taking action. For example, this may mean putting up filters, so you’re being bombarded with less information daily.
KM: Why is bandwidth such a scarcity?
CP: Over the past decade, distractions in our lives have surged. Daily, we filter exponentially more data than we did in the past. A 2016 Pew Research Center study found that we’re not only working more weeks annually (from 43 weeks in 1980 to 46.8 weeks in 2015) but also longer hours (from 38.1 hours in 1980 to 38.7 in 2015).
Worse yet, we are now also expected to be always on and always connected, so knowing when we’re “at work” is also very difficult to measure. I often work at home and work with a small distributed team. It’s not unusual for us to exchange an email or text message on the weekend or at 8:30 pm. We could be making dinner or grocery shopping or attending an event at our kids’ school. Are we working when we have these exchanges? Absolutely, but this time is especially challenging to count and tends to get lost in stats about the length of the workday and week. What we do know is that this is leading many people to feel overwired and overtired. Our current overwired world has taxed our cognitive resources, and we need a solution. Proactively building bandwidth is a vital part of this solution.
KM: So, when you have good bandwidth management, you have the right energy and attention on the right things at the right time?
CP: Exactly! Bandwidth management is a critical foundation that ensures you have the right energy and attention to focus on the right things at the right time. Bandwidth management is essential in the same way that eating healthy foods and exercising daily is essential. If you aren’t taking care of your physical needs regularly, you’re going to feel worn down and make yourself vulnerable to illness. If you aren’t taking care of your bandwidth, you’re also setting yourself up for failure, not success. You will feel overwhelmed, easily distracted, scattered, and so on.
KM: What are the four steps you coach people to optimize their brain?
CP: I am a firm believer that we can optimize by building systems and strategies that become the scaffolding for success. This starts by doing a better job collating, eliminating, automating, and delegating. Collating is about taking stock and getting a line of sight on all your demands. Creating the habit of collating is the greatest gift you can give to yourself and those around you. Eliminating is about clearing your plate and getting a better line of sight so you can make better choices. Automating is one way to get a bit closer to realizing this future life. When you automate, you build something once but use it many times. Finally, there is delegating– once you have clarity on what you want to achieve and how to get there, think about who can handle these tasks to help you build bandwidth. Delegating may seem simple, but as I’ve discovered, it’s actually something that many people struggle to do well and to do well consistently.
KM: Can you share an example of a client engagement?
CP: I recently worked with a leader who runs an international organization with distributed offices across North America. When I met her, her bandwidth was low. She was doing a lot of good work but trying to do too much, and with her limited bandwidth, this left little time for high-level strategy, perspective-taking, and decision making. It was also leading her to engage in behaviors that were neither good for her or her team, including micro-managing. By identifying what was draining her bandwidth and then putting new systems and habits in place, we worked to rebuild her bandwidth. She’s now more focused and delegating work to her team more effectively. As a result, she has the bandwidth she needs to focus on the big picture and strategy. Just as important, she now has the bandwidth required to respond to emergencies, if and when they arise. The transformation has been powerful for this individual client and already had a trickle-down effect on her team and the entire organization.
KM: Do you see your finances coming into play when you work with clients on their professional goals?
CP: I am always surprised and then humbled by how many successful executives struggle with this activity. Many people get “to the top” by doing good work and walking through open doors, rather than strategically thinking about, planning, and pro-actively “creating” their ideal career. So, AIM Leadership clients complete a proprietary online assessment that creates a priority map of things they need to work on in their lives. Part of this exercise asks them to imagine that they had just had their most wildly successful year ever and to describe where they landed. This is where I see people’s wealth goals and financial concerns coming to the surface. Executives are often so busy working on their work; they often don’t prioritize their financial health and retirement planning. Like anything else, if you want to realize your financial goals, you need to prioritize them, and this requires building the bandwidth to do so.
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