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Spinning Plates

– This article is one in a series by Lee de Lang, Managing Partner at Big Red Oak, about his learning experiences in leadership.

 

“There’s a myth that you can focus on multiple things at once. You can’t. Multitasking is terrible.” James Scongack, Executive VP, Corporate Communications & Service Operations, Bruce Power

This may seem like a startling statement, but I understand the point. One of the frustrations I’ve experienced as the leader of a small business is the way a day can fragment into many scattered problems, all of them demanding a quick resolution. And if it’s not handled properly, this can grow into a big problem, because the work could become piecemeal, deprived of the right attention to detail. I’ve learned that spreading yourself thin can be a real detriment to ensuring and sustaining quality – and quality is paramount for our company. Quality of content, quality of service and quality of thinking.

For several years, I’ve produced videos for our client, Bruce Power Nuclear, creating content for their various lines of business, particularly for corporate affairs and external media relations. I thought it would be interesting to compare notes with James Scongack, Executive Vice President of Corporate Communications and Service Operations at Bruce Power. While our industries are very different, with their own unique challenges, I wanted to hear his perspective on leadership, and on his ability to maintain a strong focus, especially in a large organization with so many moving pieces.

 

ME: We’ve worked together for a long time, and I’ve seen how you motivate and empower your team while also engaging with internal and external stakeholders. And you still find the headspace to collaborate with leadership on business decisions. How do you manage your schedule so that it doesn’t feel like you’re spinning too many plates, keeping them all up in the air and making sure that none of them fall?

JAMES: “You don’t. You can’t. The brain is not structured to multitask.”

ME: Phew. Okay, so that’s a load off. But how do you keep the plates spinning?

JAMES: “I think it comes down to getting everyone organized, and also organizing your own mental bandwidth. Emergent issues do arise, but then you must ask yourself some questions. Can someone else resolve this? Is it something that can wait, or does it need to be addressed immediately? If you empower your staff to make decisions, then you can carve out the time for yourself to be able to concentrate on one piece at a time.”

ME: But still, how do you get your people to help you steer the ship in the right direction?

JAMES: “Ideally, you agree on the outcomes that you want in each of their areas. Just agree up-front what the parameters and priorities are within the project. It’s very likely that the people in those streams are actually better at that piece they’re working than you are. You can’t do a good job at everything.”

ME: I sometimes struggle with trying to move our business quickly and confidently into uncharted waters, whether it’s a new workflow process, or developing a new revenue stream through other services. What is your approach to tackling bigger initiatives with many elements to be aligned?

JAMES: “I think that a lot of people have a tough time when they’re tackling something big. It comes down to getting everyone focused on the first steps, with the attitude that we’re just going to go and do this. And it’s not only the leaders, it’s everybody. They all have to understand what the top priority is.”

“Here’s an example: my daughter’s iPad. We were at the airport, returning from Jamaica. She wanted to download movies from the new Disney channel, which all take a bit of time to download completely, and she chose ten of them. I tell her: ‘Aubrey, it’s just a three-hour flight. You don’t have time to actually watch twenty hours of video, so pick the two that you want. We’ll download those and then they’ll be ready in time for the flight. ‘“

“I think it’s the same issue for a company: trying to download more things than are needed all at the same time. So, we try to agree on the priorities and outcomes and then take it step by step. The tasks are assigned to those who are prepared to accept the initiative and carry them out. You count on the other people in your organization to make sure that those plates keep spinning.”

 

While the structure and the personnel differ in the companies that James and I lead, I found his perspective enlightening. With a better appreciation for how he is working, and what he is working towards, I’ve gained some valuable insights for Big Red Oak — and for our clients — as we all continue to adapt to evolving circumstances and face new challenges.

The chance to study other leaders’ experiences and tweak them into transformations for your own organization is extremely valuable. So, thank you, James, for sharing your time and your insights.