To-do #1: Kill your to-do list

April 4, 2013 /Forbes/ – Most executives sit atop a mountain of to-do’s that never seems to get any smaller, no matter how furiously they work to cross things off. One young entrepreneur I work with was struggling with a list that contained 25 “pressing issues.” She wanted to improve her web site, craft a workable budget, reorganize the sales force, update pricing, replace the head of IT, prepare board documents, start employee reviews and a dozen other vital tasks.

That many giant projects stacked on top of one another can be a fearsome thing to behold. So I suggested she put the list aside for a minute, take a deep breath, and pull out a clean sheet of paper. Next I told her to try this exercise:

Fit every item on the Big List into one of three columns — tasks that benefit Employees, Shareholders, or Customers.

If any of the tasks doesn’t fit in one of the columns — cross it off. Be ruthless.

Rank the remaining tasks by order of importance, and assign all but the top one in each column to your team members.

The three remaining tasks — one in each group – are your new priorities.

As hard as this can be to do, the idea is a simple one: To-do’s aren’t goals – they’re tasks. If you’re a CEO (or a team leader), your job is to figure out what winning looks like. In the above example, balancing the needs, wants and expectations of all three core constituencies became the guiding principle for this young leader as she found her bearings. Not ticking off to-do’s.

Your most important job as a leader is to keep your team focused on a clear, compelling and limited set of big goals – no more than three. Yesterday I shared a few ways to make your goals exciting, unselfish, and memorable. You’re the guardian and evangelist of your organization’s priorities – it’s up to you to keep them high up and in neon letters so all employees can see, from C-level to the street level.

At Microsoft, that meant putting “a computer on every desk and in every home.” At Amazon.com, their Kindle seeks to offer “every book, ever printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds.” Pepsi famously wanted to “Beat Coke.” At jetBlue, we strive to be “America’s favorite airline by bringing humanity back to air travel.”

If you’re splaying 25 to-do’s across 10 columns like my young friend did, no one will know your priorities – because you won’t have any! You’ll end each week exhausted, wondering if you made any progress. And your team will lose steam.

It’s clarity and boldness you want: when employees can actually believe in what they’re spending so much of their lives doing, they’ll feel energized and excited, because they know what they’re doing matters. If you can give them a “line of sight” from their jobs to the big goal, you’ll find invigorated employees accomplishing remarkable things.

Clear, inspiring goals to empower your people and connect them to your business — that should be #1 on a your (very short) list.

By Joel Peterson