As professionals, we need to learn how to manage our time and how to focus on the primary objectives of our job. As managers, however, you can help your staff excel by encouraging them to set annual goals, and choose one thing they hope to improve upon. Applying the Emphasis Rule, you can help them apportion time appropriately, partner with mentors and plan for their education.
“The Emphasis Rule” is part of the Lessons Learned series.
Ever had a job where everything was thrown at you at once? Where do you begin? What do I do about the things I know little about? How can I control what is happening around me? Working in IT, I had thousands of days where random events intruded into whatever routine I had constructed. Every morning was an adventure as I turned on my computer, read the e-mail and the monitoring tools to discover if there were any surprises out there, another mystery to unravel. How do you address such situations?
Well, try football.
Lessons from Football
Back in the 1990’s I needed some additional income and was fortunate to bump into a friend at the post office who invited me to the local football officials association. It was a lot of fun because 1) I loved football and 2) I met up with several guys who attended high school with me back in the 70’s. I was hooked and the next thing I knew I was staring into an 186 page book replete with rules, definitions, “mechanics” and commentary. I thought I knew the game of football. I was suddenly encountering a rather intimidating situation. I was working full time, so I was absorbing this stuff in my spare time. I had to pass two exams before getting onto the field. I had to attend scrimmages for training. Then came the real exam – the game itself.
The exams were comprehensive. So I had to know something about everything to pass them. Yet even after getting over the hump on that challenge, it was a lot to handle to sort out this mass of information while tracking twenty -two players running up and down the field. The association understood this problem and had two things to make it easier.
First, they assigned newcomers to one position – linesman. The linesman’s job was relatively simple. Their primary responsibility amongst the crew was to track the downs, checking the ball placement and the down marker. The rules that applied largely centered around what occurred along the line at your side of the field. You weren’t covering everything. As the years progressed, the association would move you to a different position on the field where a new set of rules would be the focus and your role on the crew different. After four years, you would have worked anywhere on the field, have a full knowledge of the rule book and how to apply the penalties. It was a fun job.
Second, the national association annually would announce a point of emphasis. As the years progressed, the local association committed itself to focusing on the current point of emphasis as determined by the national association. As I learned more about the rule book, I found it helpful that for the current year the officials, the coaches and the players would all know that a particular rule would be emphasized for that year. I mastered the rules, the penalties that applied, and the mechanics of how officials observed infractions.
Applying to the Workplace
My experience with football officiating presented some great lessons for the workplace. IT in the 90’s was an absolute circus. There was no common networking standard, no Internet, no TCP/IP protocols, no “web” when the 90’s began. Windows 3.1 was just then emerging. There was no plug-n-play that worked reliably and certainly no USB ports. Yet people still connected, still networked, still adapted new applications and databases to their work environments. Our job was to learn it, introduce it to the office and figure out all the bugs. It was fun and exciting work. But incredibly stressful. And there were few training courses that prepared you for many of these challenges.
To bring some order to the chaos, I took my experience from football officiating and applied it to my daily work habits. I realized with each passing year that there was a short list of significant challenges that lay ahead. One year I moved to a different part of the hospital I was working in that had a token ring network. What is that? Well I had to learn and learn quickly. So for a time it was my “point of emphasis.” I allotted adequate time to learn the technology, mapped out the network and learned about the switches. Like the football rule book, I had other things going on. I had to respond to everything, but in the midst of all the other things happening around me, I could focus for a time on one thing.
A point of emphasis is also a good way to schedule your day, your week, the month and even the entire year. I remember when TCP/IP first appeared. That was a great case of an annual point of emphasis translating to working standards. Another was the introduction of Ethernet networking where I had to learn new wiring standards, master how it worked, and incorporated new tools. It was something I encountered every day, but it was not just dumped on my lap. I had the ability to plan how to attack the problem. So I apportioned time to focus on the technology and devise ways to best integrate it into our network, study the performance issues we encountered and the support challenges we were facing.
Even in retirement, I have a point of emphasis. When I first retired, the emphasis was on how our retirement income would appear. It just didn’t happen. Health care was part of that process. Even after all that was settled, there is one month of each year where I once again emphasize a review of retirement income and health insurance coverage. In managing my writing career, there are certain parts of the month where I emphasize various aspects of publishing and social media technology. I just don’t try to do everything every day. By allotting a particular time for a problem, and sticking to the plan, I can learn a great deal.
Professional development is, in some respects, an application of the Emphasis Rule. Way back in the 80’s, for my first career, I was a grain trader. Talk about everything happening around you at once! First, I mastered futures trading. Other things happened, but what my employer wanted me to master was how and why futures trading is done. My second phase of the job focused on buying and selling cash grain, alongside the futures trading. This may be Greek to most people, so let’s just say the dynamics are a bit different. With futures trading, I dealt with other grain traders. In the cash grain business, I dealt with grain elevator managers (big and small), large farmers, truckers, rail and barge services. The final stage of training was in my third year when I applied my penchant of dealing with large numbers to all that I had learned, creating a matrix of commodities, their location, the market and transportation spreads. My “customers” were the large volume traders. Yet I continued to work in all the other things. But knowing all those things on day one was impossible. Even knowing those things on day 366 was impossible. By emphasizing new skills and knowledge, you can master the larger challenges that come with the job over time.
Managers can help their staff excel by encouraging them to set annual goals, and choose one thing they hope to improve upon. Around that point of emphasis, you can help them apportion time appropriately, partner with mentors and plan for their education. You can also use the point of emphasis approach for performance evaluations. Strategically, a point of emphasis is a good tool for identifying important objectives for the coming year and creating an outline of skills and resources you will need to achieve them.
© Copyright 2023 to Eric Niewoehner