Drive or Be Driven #3: The Right Stuff- Priorities

In Episode 8, we talked about common mistakes that consultants make in managing their careers. Consulting organizations are highly competitive with clear benchmarks for promotion. Months at level are used to gauge whether or not you are on track or falling behind. In this crucible, you will either thrive or fail.

To recap, we touched on the following three common mistakes that consultants make in their careers:

  1. Prioritizing the wrong things.

  2. Leaving problems unclear.

  3. Overpromising and under delivering.

Notice anything familiar? Chances are that you've either heard Oprah or a TED talk about these subjects. We've seen everyone, from entry level Analysts to C-level executives, struggle with these concepts. We're going to dig into the right way to handle each one over our next few podcasts and blog posts, starting with Prioritizing the Right Things the Right Way.


Start with defining what you need to accomplish in a given time frame. In consulting, we are driven by the contract. We have a set of deliverables that have to be provided to the client in a contractually established amount of time. The budget and time allowed are often laughably small.

Most of you don't have a list of deliverables or career levels to review and measure. How do you become a Vice President at a bank? How do you become a Director of Engineering? The standards are usually vague and nebulous.

Personally, I find these situations maddening. I want to have a clear list of objectives and be rewarded for achieving them on time and on schedule. I spoke with a former colleague last week about being passed over for promotion to Vice President for the third year in a row. The rationale is that "she isn't technical enough." How do you quantify that requirement? What can you do to address that concern?

Prioritize the right things.

Break down the next 2 - 4 weeks in terms of your responsibilities and deliverables. Ask your team lead, supervisor, or a mentor. Specifically, ask "what do I need to do to exceed expectations over the next month?" Take notes and play back the list. Agree on the priority and take the opportunity to clarify anything that is unclear or possibly beyond you.

Do not take on work that is beyond you are responsibilities that you do not control. It's tempting to get excited and overcommit because of the desire to impress or stretch yourself. Remember that the focus is the next 2 - 4 weeks. Run 5Ks before you boldly state that you're running a marathon in a month.

Consulting teams break a project into smaller increments, typically 2 - 4 weeks. Consulting teams are typically expensive and waiting a month to show value is often perilous. Delivering Quick Wins provide consulting teams time while they work on the longer term effort. Balance your portfolio with quick wins and longer term bets.

Define value in terms of High or Low. High could be anything that saves you 40 hours or more of time and energy in a month. It could be a sales opportunity worth 100 or more new licenses or subscriptions. Work with your lead to distinguish High value from Low value. Place a value on items are important, e.g., update servers and routers with the latest security patches, to ensure a good balance between new work and keeping the lights on securely and reliably.

Establish clear measures.

For each item on your list, what is the bar for exceptional, meh, and ugh. Measures can determine the standard of success, but they also help you identify items that may be too difficult to achieve in the given time. If you have longer term goals on your list, such as running a marathon, break it into smaller tasks. Measure your 5K times as a part of your 2 - 4 week test.

Most organizations cannot and will not offer a reward for a month of performance. That's fine. You are piloting a new way of working and career building for yourself. It is likely that your manager or lead is unfamiliar with a direct conversation about performance and career. Expect a few bumps in the road as you refine the process.

Senior security and technology experts often struggle to define clear metrics. If the systems never fail or you are never breached, how do you quantify the value of your reliability or security programs? How do you prove that the company, the State, or a system, is secure? Can you prove a negative? Quick response: Yes. Use the absence of evidence to defend your security and technology projects and budgets.

Quantify your measures in dollars and time. For every item on your list, a simple back of the napkin calculation is useful, especially when championing your cause and in setting priorities. Is the value of your deliverable, created over 40 hours, higher than your cost? Are you solving a problem for an entire department or team? Are your sales pursuits going to generate more value than you put into them? If the numbers are upside down, you need to throw your list away and start again.

Estimate properly. Reset clearly.

In a 2 - 4 week timeframe, you essentially have a budget of 80 - 160 hours of capacity. Not all of this time is productive. Beyond meetings and meeting follow ups, people are simply not productive at 8 hours a stretch. Do not fully commit all of your time. Hold ~25% of your time (40 hours in a month) in reserve and plan for the unexpected.

When the unexpected inevitably arrives, talk with your lead or manager. Reset expectations. Use your list of deliverables, their priority, progress, and estimated time to complete to determine if you can add the unexpected or if something needs to come off of your list.

In software engineering, a number of teams use Agile or Scrum. Both methods usually break a development project into smaller sets of functionality delivered in 2 - 4 week sprints. Delivering in smaller, more frequent increments reduces risk and improves quality.

Agile often fails because business or tech team members change or add to the menu, right up until the last day of the sprint, without understanding and communicating what needs to come off of the menu. It is better to ruthlessly manage expectations at the beginning, keeping the menu up to date, than to keep a menu that is illusion.

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