Putting First Things First

December 16, 2015 Carl Ryden

In business and in life it seems we constantly struggle to keep the urgent from crowding out the important.

Each day there is a new fire to put out. When we reach our desk each morning there are 25 or 50 or sometimes even hundreds of new emails at the top of our inbox. Each one is begging for just a few seconds of our attention. Before we know it, the day is gone, then the week, and then the year.

This happens not only at the personal level but at the organizational level as well. There, it is an even harder habit to break.  Before you know it, this becomes part of the culture of the organization. Sometimes so much so that the organization completely loses its understanding of what things are, in fact, most important; they only know what is urgent.

I was discussing this recently with a friend who is a senior leader at a large bank. Banks, especially now in the wake of the Great Recession and the financial crisis, are particularly susceptible to the urgent vs. important problem. It is extremely understandable: For many banks, over the past few years, addressing the most urgent matters quickly was quite literally a matter of survival. As the economist saying goes, you had to make it through the short term to ever make it to the long term.


Put another way, banks were in Q1 of the Eisenhower Decision Matrix. But now, with credit portfolios stabilized and improving and rates starting to rise, how do we transition from surviving to thriving? How do we remind the organization what is most important, helping them move to Q2 of the matrix and stay away from Q3?

I shared a story with my friend. Almost 15 years ago, when I was in business school, Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, came to MIT to speak to a packed room of MBA students. I was lucky enough to be in that room.

He started out by placing a large glass jar on the table in front of him and filling it with rocks the size of his fist. When no more rocks could fit in the jar, he asked the room, “Is the jar full?”

“Yes,” was the audience reply. There was no room left for any more rocks.

Covey then pulled a container of pebbles out from below the table, which he poured into the jar, filling the gaps around the rocks.

“Is it full now?” he asked.

The crowd response this time was mixed. The jar certainly looked full, but we could sense that Covey was in the midst of making a bigger point. He then reached below the table and produced a container full of sand. He poured that in and it sifted between the pebbles.

“Is the jar full now?”
firstthingsfirstNow we were certain. “No,” was the universal answer.

“Good!” Covey said. Next he poured water into the jar, filling it up to the top.

“So what was the point of this? What is the lesson to be learned here?” he asked.
This was a room full of “Type A” overachievers at a top MBA program. The answer was obvious to all of them:  If you are creative, diligent and persistent, you can always find time to do one more thing. You can always add more thing to your to-do list or squeeze one more project into the plan for the next year. Even when your life seems full, you can always add more if you try hard enough.

Covey smiled and then pulled a neat bit of mental jujitsu on the room.

“No, the lesson here is that if I hadn’t put the big rocks in first, I would never have been able to get them into the jar.”

Covey went on, “In your business and in your life, you have to put forth effort to identify the ‘big rocks’ and then make sure that you put those in the jar first, or they will never make it in there.”

My banker friend loved the story and committed to retelling it before each strategic planning meeting and budget meeting. For him, the big rocks were: How do we better serve our customers? How do we build better customer experiences and stronger relationships? How do we build a better brand and a more valuable bank? How do we attract and retain the best people?

Interestingly, the conversation after that turned to Covey’s other point: This is not just true for our business, but for the ‘big rocks’ in our lives as well. We talked about setting aside time for our family, for our friendships and for our community. We both decided that reminding ourselves of this story before the holiday season is just as important as reminding our teams of this story before budget season.

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