Understaffed and Overworked: What Now?

When resources are scarce, you need a plan for managing your career, your team, and even your boss. Here's what works: balance, focus, and effective communication.
by Paul Michelman

Meet Cheryl Andrus: Manager. Survivor. A vice president responsible for corporate and product marketing at FranklinCovey in Salt Lake City, Andrus was asked in August 2002 to also take charge of one of the company's business lines. Along with these new responsibilities came the mandate to achieve 50 percent bottom-line improvement during the next year.

To do this, Andrus knew she would need a focused and dedicated team. What she had was an overburdened one. In fact, a company survey showed that 60 percent of Andrus's 48 reports believed that they were working at maximum capacity and couldn't take on any additional work. (The nationwide average in FranklinCovey's xQ survey was 50 percent.)

What's more, over the course of the next six months, the size of Andrus's already overtaxed staff would shrink from 48 to 35—but corporate expectations would not be ratcheted down.

Andrus had quite a challenge on her hands. Perhaps you are attempting to manage your way through a similarly exigent scenario. Trying to accomplish everything that used to be done by two or three people, you may be feeling stressed, maybe more than a bit underappreciated. But take heart: You can weather this storm and come out on top—if you have a strategy.

A well thought out plan for managing yourself, your team, and even your boss through these tough times will not only help you address the new demands being heaped upon you, it will also help you turn this onerous situation into a springboard for future growth.

The sure recipe for failure is to suck it up and try to do it all.
—Isabel Parlett, Parlance Training

Let's begin with what you shouldn't do: "The sure recipe for failure is to suck it up and try to do it all," says Isabel Parlett of Parlance Training, a Santa Fe, N.M., firm specializing in business communications. "You'll burn out, your team will resent you, your reputation will suffer, and the work probably won't all get done anyway."

Conversely, if you offer resistance to new duties when the company is down, you may not like the company's reaction. Even if you don't find yourself on the wrong end of a future workforce reduction, you'll likely be tagged with the dreaded "not a team player" label, and future opportunities could be severely limited.

So what's the recipe for successful self-management in this economic climate? The ingredients include balance, focus, effective communication, and more than a pinch of dynamism.

Those were certainly apparent in Andrus's response to her rather large dilemma. "I had a problem," she says, "but there were very specific things I focused on to help me through the dark days and deliver value to the company." Here are two facets of her approach.

1. Stay focused
Since Andrus clearly could not accomplish everything on her agenda, she says she brought "very intense" focus to determining which of her many goals were truly critical—to her, her team, and the company. To do so, she applied a five-part litmus test to each of her existing goals by asking these questions:

— "What is its economic impact?" How will this goal affect the company economically and move it forward?

— "Is it aligned with the company's strategy?" In a time of rapidly shifting corporate strategy, it's essential to regularly reevaluate individual and team goals to ensure that each still maps to those of the company.

— "How will it satisfy stakeholders?" How important is it to your boss, your team, and other interested parties?

— "What is my level of passion, talent, and energy for it?" If you can't bring all three to the table, you're not going to achieve a high return on your efforts.

— "Do we have the resources?" Is there sufficient time, money, and any other necessary resources to accomplish this goal?

Ultimately, you can't determine which goals rate as must-do's entirely on your own, Andrus says. "After I go through this process myself, I go see my boss to make sure I'm aligned with him and with his stakeholders. You have to learn to be open and to listen to how your boss reacts to your analysis. By focusing on economic impact and strategy in particular, you are talking in his language, and it makes you look smart."

Successes can get people energized really quickly had nothing to do with the failure to expense options.
—Cheryl Andrus, FranklinCovey

Many managers are daunted by the prospect of having these types of conversations with their bosses, notes Thomas DeLong, who teaches organizational behavior at Harvard Business School. "I'm amazed that although organizations are willing to set metrics for success in difficult times, so few individuals are willing to have conversations about what they need to accomplish," he says.

The toughest thing for most people is initiating this type of discussion, DeLong continues. In his work with professional service firms, he's found that many people would rather work 80 hours per week than hold difficult conversations about their workload.

So how do you broach this delicate subject? "When in doubt, share the dilemma," DeLong says.

For example, you might start a conversation with your boss like this: "I'm excited about the opportunities I have. But I have ten great opportunities and the time for four. If you were me, how would you approach this?"

2. Remember the little picture
At a time when her team was filled with fear and feeling burnt out, Andrus used small successes as a motivational tool. First, make sure everyone understands the long-term strategy, she says. Then, "if you get people focused on current results, even small milestones and successes can get people energized really quickly."

Andrus practices what her company's products preach: She holds both regular team meetings and one-on-ones with her direct reports; she also underscores the importance of having daily and weekly priorities. It's all part of making sure that short-term objectives support long-term goals.

Andrus's strategy appears to be working well. She still has her sanity, and her team is moving ahead: "It's been a slow start, but we're making faster progress every month. So far it looks like we can make it [to the 50 percent improvement] by the end of the year."

Andrus's experiences and the strategy she employed dovetail nicely with the best advice we heard from a number of self-management experts. Here are their suggestions for overburdened managers.

Get Out In Front

"No one in the organization wants to be the one to decide what has to give" when there is a loss of staff, says Parlance Training's Parlett. "So everyone plays corporate hot potato, passing the problem down the line until someone ends up as the scapegoat for not pulling off a miracle. Stepping up to the plate and making the call about what gets done and what doesn't can make you the hero. You do the deed no one else wants to do, and you focus your efforts toward producing the results you've decided are most meaningful."

Create Alliances

"Senior managers should develop networks of internal alliances," says Larraine Segil, author of Dynamic Leader, Adaptive Organization: Ten Essential Traits for Managers. These are cross-group relationships that are strategically mapped to include stakeholders with direct relationships to managers' areas of influence. Such internal alliances not only augment your current efforts, they also help your work get noticed.

"Keeping your head down under the burden of responsibilities will mean that your personal and strategic vision will be stymied within your own organization," Segil notes. If you miss the opportunity to court key opinion influencers, they won't be able to assist you when you need help later.

DeLong urges executives to create support networks of "truth speakers." Within your organization, you should seek out two or three people "who will tell you the things you don't want to hear and who will give a fair representation of who you are when you're not in the room," he says. "The last thing we need when things are tough is to have people tell us what they think we want to hear."

Manage Up

"Remind your superiors about your added responsibilities," says Susan Battley, CEO of Battley Performance Consulting (Stony Brook, N.Y.), and a leadership psychologist for many Fortune 100 firms. "Human nature being what it is, they are likely to forget or overlook this change if you don't." This can be tricky since you don't want to be seen as a whiny opportunist during difficult times. Seek regular feedback from your boss about your expanded duties, Battley recommends. "This can be a subtle and effective reminder," she says; it keeps your new duties in the forefront of your superior's often frazzled mind while ensuring that you are contributing in the most effective way possible.

Focus On Your New Duties

The easiest thing to do when you're saddled with new projects is to give them short shrift. In the name of survival, it is tempting to make sure you know enough to manage current processes and leave it at that. This approach misses a big opportunity, says Felicia Zimmerman, author of Reinvent Your Work: How to Rejuvenate, Revamp, or Recreate Your Career and principal of Dallas-based Zimmerman Communication.

If you take the time to really understand your team's responsibilities, you can bring a fresh perspective on how to make their work more strategically valuable. "Get the team focused on what could they do differently to provide better results with greater efficiency," says Zimmerman. By doing this, you deliver more value today and set yourself up to deliver more value tomorrow.

To Position Yourself, Begin With Your Team

When you are taking on substantial new responsibilities, it's tempting to fancy yourself an essential component of the company's survival—or at least its short-term success. However, Zimmerman cautions against attempting to take advantage of this situation until you have shown concrete results. And when you do make your move, be careful to cast your successes in light of the team's performance.

"You should be talking informally to your boss regularly," says Zimmerman. "Over coffee, you mention how well the team is responding to the challenges and the results they are seeing, with the emphasis always on the team, not on you individually."

Use these conversations to set up next steps. For example, if your team has learned valuable lessons that could provide benefits to other areas in your supervisor's domain, offer to facilitate some cross-team learning. This kind of proactive approach delivers short-term value and shows your commitment to the organization.

What you take away from Andrus's story and how you apply the advice of the experts, only you can determine. But almost everyone should be able to pull at least a small lesson from this observation: "A lot of executives are sitting around waiting for the next shoe to drop," Zimmerman notes. "Worse, many have buried their heads in the sand like ostriches. When you do that, another part of your anatomy is uncovered."

About the Author

Paul Michelman is editor of Harvard Management Update.