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Putting the Right Things First

The tool that reduces expenses and multiplies profit is the same tool that lifts whole economies and nations: productivity.

Laura Stack’s lifework is helping people get the most out of everything they’re given — money, manpower, time. She was inspired by Peter Drucker’s iconic book The Effective Executive, published in 1967. This book helped reshape the way leaders saw their real roles within their organizations.

Laura’s seventh book, Doing The Right Things Right, brings Drucker’s work into the electronic age, where distraction is only increasing. She drew from 25 years of running her business — The Productivity Pro — and helping the world’s largest corporations improve their operations.

If you find yourself doing more and more but getting less and less out of your efforts, it’s time to reassess what you are doing. But even more important than that, you must ask why you are doing it.

In this discussion with Publisher Paul Feldman, Laura explores how business owners can tell whether they are doing the wrong things, and she offers simple ways of doing the right things right.

FELDMAN: I have too much to do. You have too much to do. Our readers have too much to do. How do we navigate that?

STACK: My work with clients evolved over 25 years, and I have a new model and a new way of doing things. But it all comes down to a key principle for business owners.


Productivity is so basic to any business conversation, whether you’re talking as a business owner or for your team or company.

If you have 10 people and you can improve productivity by 10 percent, now you have the equivalent of 11 people and you didn’t increase your salary expense. At a very basic math level, any business owner can get their arms around the return on investment of working on improving productivity for themselves and for their team.

I have a master’s in business administration, and I can kind of describe my MBA in a box here: If you want to be successful in business, you have to make money and save money. That’s the magic profitability solution for a business.

To break it down a little more — to make money, you must get more customers, keep the customers that you have and invest wisely.

To save money, you could cut expenses, staff, salaries and benefits. You could even cut the quality of your products and your services. Those are all very painful. So, from my 25 years in business, the best way that I know to save money is to increase productivity.

Productivity is the only win-win solution that will improve that ratio, help boost the value of your staff and improve the bottom line. We must teach people how to do more with less. That is productivity defined — maximum results in minimum time.

For example, I don’t teach salespeople how to sell, but I do teach salespeople how to be more productive. They’re not spending enough time on selling, which drives results and the numbers, because they’re inefficient and disorganized. If you can shore up those weaknesses, then you have more time to spend on that top line.

FELDMAN: How do you shore up weaknesses?

STACK: Every organization is different. Every organization has a sickness of some kind. [Laughter] Every person does.

For some people, it’s administrative inefficiencies. Some people don’t know how to process email. Some people don’t have an efficient process in place for certain activities in their office. Some don’t outsource enough. Some don’t have an organized time management system. Some meet too much. Some can’t concentrate. I mean, it’s all over the board.

FELDMAN: Let’s focus on email. We all get tons of email. What do you think is the best way of managing it?

STACK: It’s not the amount of email. I get 300 emails a day. The challenge for many people is a bigger problem than that. They don’t know what to do with things that have an action inside the email.

Typically, people just leave things there. They usually say something to themselves like, “OK, I can’t delete this email, and I can’t forward it. I don’t want to file it, because then I’d forget about it. I need to do something with it, but I can’t right now because I’m getting on a phone call for an interview in 15 minutes.”

And not knowing what else to do with it, people do the worst thing possible, which is they keep it as new, or they put a flag on it, and email piles up.

If you have never been taught how to use Outlook correctly, you end up processing, reprocessing, reading, rereading, touching, retouching email and putting a flag on it. People don’t understand the basic fundamentals of most of their email systems.

Outlook, for example, has a command called Move. Ninety-nine percent of my audience has never clicked on it. They don’t even know what it does.

It can turn an email into a task, where you put in a start date and a due date and boom, it puts it over to your task list, which sorts by start date. So you have a today, a tomorrow, a next week, a next month. It’s very easy.

If you don’t get it done, it rolls over. It’s like a customer relationship management system or any other database that salespeople are used to.

FELDMAN: Why is it preferable to assign something as a task rather than put it on the calendar?

STACK: Putting things you need to do on your calendar is the worst idea ever. Here’s what happens. Let’s say you have a to-do list of 47 things, all clicked as all-day meetings, so they go to the top, and then people are either snoozing them 47 times or they’re having to reschedule them. That’s a manual processing of action items.

The calendar was not made for things to do; it’s for things that are timed, like meetings. Tasks are for things that need to be done today, but not at 10 a.m. or 2 p.m.

But here’s the huge difference: The calendar moves backward in time. If you put something on your calendar today and you don’t get to it, tomorrow it will be appearing on yesterday. But if it’s on your tasks and you don’t get it done today, tomorrow it will still be on today, so the tasks go forward.

FELDMAN: Another problem with email is the alerts. I have disarmed my alerts, but I notice a lot of people have them set. Is that a common problem?

STACK: Most people don’t know that you can turn off what are called the global alerts. Really? We need four alerts for one email? Turn those off.

You can go in your File, your Options and then your mail. Find the section for New Incoming Items and uncheck those four boxes. Otherwise they grab your peripheral view and cause multitasking, which is completely unproductive.

You can also right-click on email from someone whom you consider important — a client, co-worker, boss, whoever. Click Rules and you’ll get a dialogue box asking when you get an email from this person, you can play this sound.

Then you can minimize your second monitor and not cheat by leaving your inbox up while you’re monitoring it all day. That would be unproductive because email doesn’t come in by order of priority.

FELDMAN: Speaking of priority, Brendon Burchard has said that “the inbox is nothing but a convenient organizing system for other people’s agendas.” What do you think about that?

STACK: I disagree. It is the most powerful time-management system out there, if you understand how to use it.


I use a process I call “the six Ds” every time I touch an email — discard it, delete it, do it, date it, put it in a drawer or defer it.

I can process 100 emails in 20 minutes. Doesn’t mean I did them, but they don’t have to be sitting in your inbox in order for you to handle them and reply to them. People just don’t know where else to put them.

You can delegate tasks. You can track projects. You can pull things up by client. You can say to your team, “OK, we’re having our one-on-one, Michelle. Here are the five things I’ve delegated to you, and this one’s overdue.”

FELDMAN: How do you integrate that with your phone?

STACK: You have to get apps and become familiar with them. The iPhone, for example, doesn’t have the feature that allows you to turn an email into a task. So you actually have to get apps to do that.

I use one called TouchDown from NitroDesk, which Symantec recently bought. It’s like having Outlook right on your phone. You’ve got your notes, tasks, calendar, contacts and email all in one app rather than all little separate buttons on your phone.

With that app, I can move emails right to the task list from my phone. I travel 120,000 miles a year speaking at meetings. I live on my phone.

I’m running through the airport with a Bluetooth. All I have to do is click on a plus mark, talk into it, click a checkmark, and boom, when I get back to my laptop, it’ll be there. It’s on my iPad. It’s on my phone. It’s on my desktop. It all syncs seamlessly.

If I get a text, I long press it, copy, click, boom, put it on my task list. So I can take notes from meetings, from client conversations, or ideas from texts, LinkedIn or email and roll them into one task list.

Then I can just drag everything up and down and reorder by priority. That way, you’re not making choices by default. “Oh, well, this is in front of me, so I guess I may as well do it.”

You can be more purposeful in how you choose what to do next.

FELDMAN: Is not knowing how to consolidate a common problem?

STACK: Yes. We have so many to-do lists, salespeople especially. They have their email, voicemail, voice recorder, little black book, legal pad, Skype, Salesforce, CRM. Then there’s the distraction of instant messaging and social media.

It’s insane. Unless you know how to get your arms around all of these inputs, you’re spread out over 50 different collection trays.

That’s what sales executives mean when they tell me “My salespeople don’t know how to prioritize.” That’s not what they’re saying. They’re saying that they’re doing whatever’s right in front of them because they don’t have one way of getting it all into one list. They can’t view it all very quickly and make choices efficiently on the next thing to do.

FELDMAN: You say that business owners and executives should be focusing on the right things. How do you determine what the right things are?

STACK: Too many business owners are focused on tasks that are menial. These are tasks that need to get done, but they’re trivial. The tasks are beneath them. I’m not saying attitudinally, like, “Oh, I’m so important. That’s not my job.”

I mean that I see business owners doing $10-, $15-, $20-an-hour activities, and I can give you example after example.

I worked with a big audiovisual firm that does all the big shows and meetings and has many offices. The chief financial officer was complaining about the process for expense reports, and the whole time it doesn’t even dawn on him that he’s doing expense reports.

And I’m saying, “OK, wait a minute. Let’s back up. You’re the CFO. How much do you make?” We’re talking about people who make hundreds of thousands of dollars filling out forms, booking travel and managing their own calendars.

This is a complete waste of time. There are too many control freaks out there who need to give it up and put somebody in place to do this.

I always ask business owners, “Are you uniquely capable and qualified to do this task? If you could hire somebody to do it, then you’re not the right person to be doing it.”

FELDMAN: How have you applied this to your own business?

STACK: In my business, I need to be doing media interviews, writing books, speaking, talking to clients and doing research or preparation. That’s really it.

There are so many other things that it takes to run my company, in the way of web and graphics and marketing. I know enough to be dangerous in just about all of those areas.

I know how to put up a webpage in WordPress. That doesn’t mean I should do it. My staff doesn’t even let me use our multifunction machine that does postage and binding and scanning.

If I’m putting postage on something in my office, that is taking away from time that I should be spending on revenue-building activities. Those are the activities that are driving business to my firm and paying the salaries of the employees who are doing those things. It’s a disservice to my team if I put postage on something.

Too many business owners either like that kind of stuff, or they’re procrastinating by doing it, because it keeps them from having to do the stuff that they really need to do.

FELDMAN: How do you become more aware of your own procrastination and do something about it?

STACK: First, you have to define why you are here, especially as you get more successful and add more people.

I call those the three buckets, where I spend my time. You can have five buckets in your organization. But I have three. Everybody on my team has three.

Anything that doesn’t fall under those three, we outsource or we get rid of it. We ask if anybody would notice if we got rid of it.

FELDMAN: What are your three buckets?

STACK: As president and CEO, the first one is brand-builder. As the brand-builder, it would make sense for me to spend my time in things that get the message of The Productivity Pro out into the marketplace, because I make the majority of my money by speaking at conferences.


So, how do I do that? Having this conversation with you is a good use of my time, because it gets into the hands of people who might say, “Gee, that gal’s pretty smart. We should bring her in to speak at our next sales kickoff.”

There’s literally nobody else who could do this interview with you. Nobody can get in my head. I couldn’t outsource this if I tried.

Another use of my time as brand-builder is writing books. That’s great because every time someone has my book in their hands, there’s a potential that they may hire me to speak.

The second bucket is rainmaking. We don’t do cold calls, outbound, email marketing, buy lists and all that. It’s all repeat and referral and spinoff. Or someone sees me speak, and then I get three more speaking engagements.

As the rainmaker, I need to be good on the stage, because that’s where I’m making the money. So I spend a ton of time on literally what words come out of my mouth when I’m on the platform.

It’s preparation, designing curriculum for a certain half-day workshop or creating videos and PowerPoint presentations. I don’t design any actual slides. I can have someone else do that, but I need to rehearse a slide presentation for hours before I can do a 45-minute talk. There is a lot of time invested before I ever show up for a speech, because that’s where the real money is for me.

And then the third bucket for me is I’m the subject matter expert. My office workers are productive, but it’s really my productivity systems that they are operating. I’m the one who has to do the research and understand all the latest-and-greatest apps that are out there.

This is the kind of roll-up-your-sleeves and putting models together, innovating, keeping up with reading, just staying on the cusp.

FELDMAN: You’ve worked with a lot of financial advisors. What do you see as a common problem that they have?

STACK: A lot of it is about how they’re working with their team and tracking who’s going to do what and making sure things don’t fall through the cracks.

A lot of financial advisors whom I work with are high performers with great skills and products. It’s the context of selling that makes or breaks them.

If their systems, workflow, foundation and processes are fundamentally flawed, then they’re inefficient, spending far too much time doing many things.

There are some things you have to let go.

FELDMAN: What kinds of things should be let go?

STACK: We all get stuck in this as business owners. We want to serve our clients and provide value, so we do all these things that we think are helping. But they can turn out to be a big waste of time.

I used to do a monthly newsletter until two years ago. I did it since 1999 and thought, “Oh my gosh, this is the best newsletter.”

It was like a 2,500-word original essay. I put a lot of time into this. I did polls, links and research. We had 38,000 people on this subscription list.

FELDMAN: That’s a big list for a newsletter.

STACK: Yes. So, I’m thinking, “My clients love it. Look at all the people who subscribe.”

A couple years ago, I got the flu. I told my staff, “I’m just so sick that we’re going to skip it this month. And we are going to hear a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth and people asking about the newsletter.”

We got three emails from people. Out of 38,000, [laughter] I mean, three.


STACK: Yes. This was a real wow. I started calling subscribers, and they told me that they put it in a file like I told them but they didn’t read it because it was too long. I asked what they wanted, and they said an email twice a week with a small paragraph.

“Seriously?” I was floored. “You want an email more often?”

So now I do a twice-weekly email containing a tip, and we have more than 50,000 subscribers. I think they are reading it, because I can see the open and the click-through rates.

Business owners need to let go of doing some things as a business and doing a lot of things themselves. We have very picky standards about how things have to get done.

FELDMAN: What are some ways of identifying those things that you should not be doing as a business owner?

STACK: Anytime you think “Oh, I can’t give it to so-and-so, because they’re going to screw it up,” or “I can’t hire anybody to do this, because they’re not going to do it the right way,” or “I’m going to do this myself, because it’ll just take a second.”

We have so many things on our list only because we insist on doing everything our way.

I have seen leaders who actually insist on reviewing the emails of their staff person before they go out, which means they have twice as many emails. It’s not that what the staff person did was technically wrong or incorrect. It was style.

If you feel like you’re constantly having to correct someone’s work, then that person may not be competent. You may need to get another person in there. But doing it yourself is not the solution.

You have to ask, is this a picky, picky standard and an unrealistic expectation, or is it a competence or a motivation issue? We really have to get down to the crux of that.

So many times, when I give someone a project and say, “We’re at A. We need to get to B. As long as you get to B, I’ll be happy,” I have been amazed at how creative some of my team members can be when I get out of the way.

My dad used to say, “If you’re the only one who can do it or fix it or solve it, you deserve it.”

FELDMAN: Do you find that leaders are often getting in their own way with these control issues?

STACK: Yes. Then their calendars are just a giant blue blur of unavailability, because they’re not willing to let anybody else do anything for them. And guess what? People will let you do it your way, so you’ll do far more in your life and at work if you have those perfectionistic standards.

I suggest being a recovering perfectionist. Those things just aren’t worth it. Let it go, man. Let it go.


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