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Details, Details, Details

Sometimes coming up with the right idea is easy. Implementing it is hard. Leaders, particularly those who are strategic thinkers, tend to underestimate the time implementation takes, often to the detriment of the overall project.

At one point, when I was leading Duke School, we were concerned about declining net revenue (the amount of revenue collected after tuition discounts). The admission director and I decided we needed historic admission data to truly understand the long term direction of net revenue. We wanted to know how much discounting was historically granted to each grade. We wanted to know the attrition rate for students who received discounts vs those who did not. We wanted to look at the number of qualified full pay students we rejected in order to take more qualified students who needed discounts. We wanted to ascertain the numbers of our students of color availing themselves of tuition discounts compared to white students. And as we were in the midst of the admission season, we wanted that data immediately.

Unfortunately, the admissions office did not have the bandwidth to gather the data, so the task fell to my administrative assistant. As an aside, I was blessed with many excellent administrative assistants in my career, and this particular one was the most talented and had the most initiative. As a result, she was happy to sink her teeth into a project like this one.

I told her I thought the project could be done in a week. It was just gathering material that was in other places and collating them. How hard can it be? It was then that my assistant taught me a valuable lesson. She said, “Senior leaders always think jobs can be done in shorter times than they actually take.” She did not say what I imagined she was thinking. “And that is because leaders never have to do that kind of detailed work.”

The project took longer than a week. Some of the data was not where it should have been. The database we used to track admission numbers had been changed over the years and the data transfer between databases was not clean. (Something we did not realize until this project.) Finally putting the data in a form that was actually comprehensible and helpful took some work. The project took closer to two weeks.

As a leader, be cognizant that many steps needed to complete a project may be invisible to you. From a leader’s high perch, it is sometimes hard to see what the boots on the ground need to do to complete the march. It is worth asking.

This is not to say that leaders should not push their team to be efficient. Work can expand to the time allotted to it. Leaders should set Goldilock timetables--not too quick, not too slow. The best way to determine the appropriate time tables is to ask and listen to the people doing the work.


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