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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

If you don't set priorities, there just won't be time

Emerging Business Services, PricewaterhouseCoopers

Ed was the chief financial officer of a large multinational manufacturing company. He started with the company when it was a small struggling enterprise and grew with it for more than twenty years. In the early years, Ed worked fifty to sixty hours a week as a steady diet.

As he progressed within the company and his responsibilities increased, so did his hours. He reached the point where he would arrive before eight a.m. and rarely leave before nine o'clock in the evening.

He also had a hectic travel schedule and usually worked weekends. He spent July 4th one year in Europe on a business trip; he often was away for family birthdays and even neglected his own health "for the company."

In spite of all this effort, Ed frequently complained that there just was not enough time to do everything he needed to do. He did not have enough time because he took a twelve-hour day to accomplish what should have required eight hours or less.

His job was to gather information from a variety of sources, assemble it in a meaningful way and&emdash;as part of the management team&emdash;contribute to the decision-making process. As the chief financial officer, he was to set goals, supervise the systems that were in place to safeguard the corporate assets, and anticipate financial challenges.

He had overall responsibility for financial reporting, annual budgets, the company's banking relationships, and was in charge of corporate acquisitions. Ed's problem was that his financial information was not timely; he didn't use all the available sources of information; he could not establish priorities; and, perhaps, he was thrust into a position for which he wasn't prepared.

Managing a business effectively means receiving the right information in time; properly evaluating it; anticipating operating, financing or marketing problems; and setting priorities. Sources of information begin with your accounting system. In most cases, monthly financial statements&emdash—at least on a preliminary basis—should be available no later than the middle of the following month.

Some key information is available daily. Daily sales and sales month-to-date, cash in the bank, accounts payable, backlog, vacation schedules, and required debt payments, are examples.

Many business managers do not focus on other sources of valuable information. I have often learned significant information by just eating lunch in the cafeteria.

Clerical, technical, and production employees often are eager to share ideas on equipment, shipping procedures, set-up time, and paper processing. They might suggest ways of improving efficiency or they may trigger ideas that result in changes that add to the health of the organization. Tom Peters and Nancy Austin, in their book, A Passion for Excellence, refer to this as "management by walking around." They expand the concept to include seeking input from customers, vendors, etc.

Other good sources are your accountants, lawyers, and industry associations. If your professionals are experienced in your business, they can give you insight into goings-on and issues on the horizon. Industry associations can be particularly useful in keeping abreast of how others are coping with industry-wide problems and often provide a forum for exchanging ideas in a non-competitive environment.

Even if your accounting systems are such that you have a financial statement on the fifth of the month, you spend time walking around and your other sources of information are good, you still are not necessarily prepared for tomorrow's crises. You need to set priorities.

Ed thought that everything was equally important. He put a staff performance review on the same level as a meeting with a prospective lender to discuss refinancing a maturing debt.

Both are clearly important, but the performance review could be delayed a day or delegated to the appropriate department head. Debt maturity can't be delayed or, in this case, delegated. Tasks must be sorted out.

Those that can should be delegated, and those that can't should be prioritized. I use a "to do" list on which I identify those tasks that must be done that day, with a date for completion of other tasks and follow-up dates for those tasks that were delegated.

Ed is with another company today. He still is working very long hours and traveling throughout the world. He still complains that there just aren't enough hours in a day.

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