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Chief Counsel: Set the Goals, Rank the Priorities, and Then Delegate

The beginning of a new Congress means every chief of staff is faced with dozens of decisions that will set the tone for the next two years. What suggestions do you have for helping the top aide in a Congressional office prioritize one’s time?

[IMGCAP(1)]A: This is a great time to ask this question, given the many transitions you and your office are already experiencing in your day-to-day operations. Both strategic and tactical approaches will help you to better prioritize your time. The key to prioritization is achieving more purpose in the activities to which you devote yourself. Given the number of demands on your time, you should always be asking yourself the questions “Why am I doing this?” and “What do I hope to achieve?”

As you understand your priorities, the “why” and “what” should become clearer to you.

Strategic Steps

The first step in prioritization is goal-setting and planning, preferably with Member and staff involvement at a retreat or in focused meetings. Through the goal-setting process, you should be able to articulate the office plans for the 111th Congress. While work in Congress tends to be entirely reactive, goal-setting will enable you to identify the key areas that your Member wants to focus on and, therefore, those that you and your staff should support. The Congressional Management Foundation estimates that strategically focused offices manage to carve out 20 percent to 30 percent of their time for proactive work, while 70 percent to 80 percent of staff and Member time will be consumed by reactive tasks (i.e., floor demands, constituent mail and casework, press inquiries, etc.). By setting defined goals for your office, you will make clearer tradeoffs between the requests on your time. So, instead of trying to “do it all,” you can place high-value activities over low-value activities and feel confident in your rationale for saying “no” to other interruptions.

In addition to enabling better decision-making about how to allocate your time, goal-setting will also give greater purpose to your day-to-day activities. For example, if one of your office goals is to become a leading voice on health care reform and a constituent from the medical field comes in for an appointment, you should use the meeting as an opportunity to pose your own critical questions on health care reform, in addition to hearing their concerns.

Tactical Tips

The next steps are more tactical and affect how you approach your day and your week. Again, in Congress, you can easily spend your day reacting to requests from the Member, staff, constituents, colleagues and other stakeholders. What ends up absent from your calendar in the process? I often hear from chiefs of staff, “It’s 6 p.m. and I am just now starting MY work.”

What does this mean? Why did all the meetings and other tasks throughout the day not feel like your work? Most likely because you were responding to other people’s questions and agendas as opposed to your own; therefore, it felt like someone else’s work.

Here are two ways to handle this challenge better. The first is to schedule your tasks (or “your work”) at the beginning of each week and day, in the same manner that you schedule your meetings. If, for example, you have a pile of constituent mail language to approve that will take roughly two hours, don’t try to find time throughout the day (which you will never find, by the way). Instead schedule a block of time, shut your door, and check off that assignment. “Your work,” which often gets postponed until late afternoon, is likely more important than most of how you ended up spending your day. Why not then prioritize those activities over other requests that come your way?

The second strategy refers back to the initial questions I posed about why you are spending your time on certain activities. Unless it is very clear why you are personally involved in meetings or projects, you likely could have delegated the work or declined participation entirely.

As the most senior manager in the office, you are in an exceptional position to delegate activities you do not need to tackle personally. There are multiple layers of delegation, and delegation does not require completely relinquishing control.

I recognize that many assignments are of such great importance that you feel only you can fulfill them. While certain projects often require your intense involvement, challenge yourself to delegate more. If you understand the project sufficiently enough to define one part of it for a staff member, and she or he has the skills to do it, consider assigning just that portion.

By increasing your delegated duties you will: develop your staff’s skills, give them a greater sense of ownership, and save your time for only those activities that only you can handle. In particular, you need to preserve your time for those activities that you cannot clearly define for your staff and/or only you have the authority to fulfill.

Another great idea is to constantly evaluate time-spent versus impact on the projects you accept. Think of a 2×2 matrix with impact and time-spent along the two axes. You should be operating most in the low-time, high-impact and high-time, high-impact quadrants. Unavoidably you will also have to engage in some low-time, low-impact activities, but try to minimize those. Hint: You should always calculate time and impact for the projects your office takes on, not just your own.

A final tool is simply to apply a numerical value (1-10 scale) to projects that you are having difficulty prioritizing. We often procrastinate starting the tasks we dread most instead of focusing first on the high-value tasks or the ones that we can take care of quickly.

Ideally, you can use the numerical scale with your Member to suggest an alternative approach to an assignment with little return when he/she is unaware of the time it will take. I recommend reading William Ury’s “The Power of a Positive No: Save the Deal Save the Relationship — and Still Say No” to develop additional skills in this area.

Adopting these techniques early in 2009 will help assure a more productive and rewarding year for you and your office.

Meredith Persily Lamel is director of training and consulting for the Congressional Management Foundation. She works with chiefs of staff to implement strategic plans and improve their management and operational effectiveness. Click here to submit questions.

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