Are You Efficient?

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Are you efficient?

When I first started at McKinsey and Company, my colleagues and I often worked 80-100 hour weeks. On the whole, I didn’t mind. I enjoyed my work, I liked my colleagues and I felt useful and productive.

But I did run into some walls. First, I hurt my back quite badly, lost mobility in my leg, and was forced to take a substantial chunk of time off work. I still can hear very clearly my doctor yelling “you have to get it through your thick head that you can’t work 12 hour days anymore” (12 hour days I thought? Doesn’t sound so bad!). I returned to work gradually, and tried valiantly to do a better job of looking after myself, making marginal progress.

And then came baby-

Then my daughter was born, and my world shifted dramatically. I returned to work determined to maintain the quality of service to my clients and teams, but this time with two major constraints. First–I was breast-feeding, so had to be at home until 7am in the morning and home by 7pm, and second–I had negotiated to work part-time, three days a week.

The real challenge came because the volume of work had not really changed, I was still managing serious full-time projects, with full-time teams, but on a part-time schedule. I could no longer rely on my old safety valve of just working longer hours.

Efficiency not effort

These constraints led me to a powerful shift in the way I approached my work. I could no longer rely on effort; I now had to think about efficiency. I had to get in the habit of examining every element on my to-do list, and that of my teams. I had to ask – is this the most effective way to achieve the goals of the project? Do we have to do this? Is this activity going to be the difference between a happy client and an unhappy one?

While I made some mistakes along the way, I soon became adept at identifying what mattered and what didn’t: extra hour with a client who is upset about something – worth it; analysis that will change the answer – worth it, extra hour spent fiddling with font-sizes on a powerpoint presentation – so not worth it!

Once I had discovered how productive I could be, and how much more smoothly my teams ran, I found it hard to believe that no one at McKinsey or elsewhere had ever talked to me about personal efficiency before. I became an efficiency evangelist. I made sure that no one on my teams worked crazy hours. They did high-impact work but they also had balanced lives.

Today, more than ten years later, I am still spreading the word, especially to leaders of nonprofits and public organizations.

Are social sector leaders efficient?

Efficiency is a powerful concept – the idea of achieving more with the same amount of resources. Many leaders in the social sector indeed consider themselves highly efficient. They will tell you (and they are right), that they are masters of “making-do”. These leaders are typically operating in an environment of highly constrained resources. The sector is growing so fast (25% in the last decade) that more leaders than ever are competing for funding and qualified staff. Yet somehow, social sector leaders pull amazing events out of thin air, they make the budget balance just when you think it will never work, they run operations on the smell of an oily rag. They are amazing!

But are they efficient? I’m not so sure. When many leaders first connect with me, they are stuck in the habit of reaching their goals the same way I was, when they are up against a deadline, they get there with more elbow grease, more hours, and enormous effort. Does that sound familiar?

They’re changing the world, so it is easy to justify the extra hour. In the long run however, it is neither healthy, nor productive. Have you or a colleague ever sustained an injury, missed an important family or social event or broken some other kind of personal commitment for work? If so, there is hope!

Your turn-

As a leader, the first step to getting more efficient is recognizing it is not just money you need to be careful with; your time and your team’s time, are very precious resources too. Being casual with how you spend the extra hour is never wise. Just because something sneaks on the to-do list does not mean it is the best use of your time.

Give yourself permission to value your time. Start to sift things through the lens of efficiency. Ask yourself: will this activity make a difference to our clients? What will happen if I don’t do this? If it must be done, is there someone else who could do this?

I have seen time and time again that as leaders start to prioritize efficiency, they reclaim their lives, improve staff morale and actually increase their client impact. Is there something on your to-do list that shouldn’t be? What can you say no to today in a productive way?

Do you have more questions about how to get more efficient or combat burnout? We’re here to help, reach out:


Liana Downey is an experienced management consultant, who has consistently delivered results for clients on critical topics around the world. Liana is an expert advisor to the Australian Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Prior to establishing Liana Downey & Associates, she led McKinsey & Company’s Australian government and social-sector practices, and holds an MBA (Public Management) from Stanford University.

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