Leading When Overwhelmed

Homer SimpsonIt happens to all of us.

  • A direct report either gets promoted, quits or gets fired, and we have to manage his or her direct reports in addition to all of our other duties.
  • We are assigned to a special project or task team and are expected to continue to do our regular job.
  • We have to get into the details to turn around an under-performing operation while keeping all other operations moving forward.

For many leaders, leading when overwhelmed leads to deteriorating performance.  We try to work in the same way that we did before we took on all these extra duties and responsibilities.  Nevertheless, it does not work.

  • Important tasks do not get completed
  • We are not holding our direct reports as accountable as we should because we do not have time for our usual interaction


General Advice

To lead while overwhelmed requires that we first apply all the typical time management secrets in order to get done what needs to get done:

  1. Reduce workload
    1. Focus on the important (both urgent and non-urgent) at the expense of urgent but non-important activities. Essentially, this means doing acceptable “C” work on less important tasks.
    2. Learn to say “No” and to say “No” quickly
    3. Negotiate with our boss to reduce other commitments or tasks
    4. Delegate tasks to others as much as practical


  1. Guard Our Time
    1. Reduce travel to the minimum
    2. Shut the door (or work from home) to reduce distractions and get more work done.
    3. Reduce meetings and time spent in meetings by ensuring that all meetings are useful and productive so that time spent in meetings is time very well-spent


Specific Advice

The biggest challenge when overwhelmed is ensuring that our direct reports are doing what they need to be doing.  We still need to hold them accountable.  As always, holding people accountable requires regular follow up.  When overwhelmed, we likely have more direct reports or less time making regular daily or weekly meetings difficult to complete.

The solution is to transfer the responsibility of accountability and follow up to our direct reports.  We can do this by requiring that each of our direct reports prepare a one page summary of key activities, progress on key initiatives, and, when necessary, requests for assistance each and every Friday.  By keeping to one page, we ensure that they are only focusing on the most important matters.  Further, a one-page summary should only take about 30 minutes for our direct reports to write and 10 minutes for us to review.  After reviewing these 30×10 reports, we can reach out to our direct report to discuss any pending issue or request for assistance.

Having regularly used this system, I know from first-hand experience that this communication method can be wildly effective and is essential for leading when overwhelmed.   A 30×10 report gives us a helicopter view of what each of our direct reports are doing with the least possible time and effort from us.  More importantly, it forces our direct reports to communicate upward succinctly, to organize their week, and to review the progress that they are making on their key initiatives on a consistent basis.


Final Advice

Leading when overwhelmed is stressful.  We may be putting in extra hours and have much more on our plate then we can handle.  Nevertheless, it is important to keep it all in perspective.  First, we need to remember that being overwhelmed is by definition short-term: we will fill that position; that task force will wind down.  Second, we need to take the time, even if it means falling behind on important tasks, to maintain our work-life balance.  We need to go home in the evenings, get the proper amount of sleep, turn off the phones at night, and take at least one day off on weekends.   If we become an over-tired, over-stressed and overwhelmed leader, we will be patently unproductive.  More worryingly, we may be setting ourselves up for a fall that would put us and our company in a far worse position.


About David Shedd

David has been a President - CEO - COO of an up to $350M group of manufacturing, distribution, specialty retail and services companies, having led 22 different businesses from turnarounds to start-ups to fast growth companies.
This entry was posted in Improve / Turnaround, Leadership, Perform / Execution and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Leading When Overwhelmed

  1. justine shaffner says:

    Wonderful advice David, even for personal situations. It’s given me some ideas that will be very helpful. Thank you!

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