It’s not necessarily easy for CEOs to determine their work priorities. Truly defining the areas in which to focus can be complex and difficult, amid all the other complex and difficult matters they have flying at them each day.

The benefit, of course, is that slowing down enough to give thoughtful analysis to this idea may help alleviate that stress down the road. Here are several areas that can rank highly on a CEO’s priority list.

Don’t Settle

We hear a lot about compromise during the election season, usually as in “there’s a lack of …” Should a CEO be willing to compromise? Perhaps there will occasionally be benefits to it, but it could also lead to settling. Author Diana Kander examines this for, likening it to someone sitting at a bar, hoping to find a date. Long-term, she says, a “perfect 10 may look like someone who is successful, well-dressed, and educated.” As the night progresses, a perfect 10 might be someone less accomplished, or even just “someone who can drive and hasn’t had too much to drink.”

“The point here is that your goal may look different from someone else,” she says.
“Before reviewing any potential projects to determine whether you should take them on, decide what you’re trying to achieve — your perfect 10 — and make a decision to reject anything less than a 7 or 8. If you aren’t saying ‘Absolutely!’ then you should be saying ‘Absolutely not.’ That’s the only way you’ll wind up with a 10.”

Quality Control

Continuing the “perfect 10” concept, Kander recommends getting employees to absorb these concepts as well. By recognizing the standards, staff members can aim for those same goals.

“Do you care about potential revenue implications? Customer growth? Retention numbers? Potential liability to the company? Pick your top six criteria, and set them for the team. … This is a really powerful tool for teams to use when they would otherwise be left with a subjective debate on what should be done.”

Embrace ‘Unscheduled Time’

The CEO who has every moment of every day planned out might be incredibly productive. But such a rigid approach can lead to burnout, and to employees feeling left out of the discussion. In a story for Business Insider, George Bell recommends the idea of setting aside “unscheduled time” — about 30 percent of each day –- and to not let checking email clog up that time period.

“Get out of your office or cube,” he writes. “Walk around purposefully, and be seen in informal ways. One thing I like to do is drop in on a small group of product or engineering colleagues and ask them what they are working on — and why. Just listen. Express enthusiasm. If you have comments, make them, but this is not a strategy session. Thank them for their hard work, and tell them to have lunch on you today at the Mexican place downstairs. If you think they are misguided, talk to their manager, but don’t undermine the manager in front of the group. … Unscheduled time is critical to your creativity and leadership.”

Emphasize Innovation

CEOs who always look ahead for the Next Big Thing in their industry can have a better shot at keeping up with the times. Decisions must be prudent, of course, but maintaining a path of innovation is vital. Tim Pawlenty, former Minnesota governor and Republican presidential candidate, examines this in a story for The Wall Street Journal.

“Technological advances are moving at a pace unlike at any time in history,” he says.
“Just 10 years ago, BlackBerry was the smartphone market leader and few phone screens were even in color. Smartphone innovation has created a multibillion-dollar industry and changed the way we bank, use maps and put endless information at the fingertips of customers. Every CEO should have a team that believes innovation is a ‘do or die’ priority.”

Know Your ‘No Zone’

A priority list can’t go on and on, otherwise the items wouldn’t truly be priorities. When ideas or opportunities pop up beyond those items, they can be taken into consideration. But as Kander writes, know when to say no.

“Warren Buffett calls it the ‘avoid at all costs’ list,” she says. “These are the items that didn’t make it to your priority list and should be avoided at all costs. Steve Jobs followed a similar philosophy. He understood that by saying no to 1,000 good ideas, he could focus on the game changers.”

Embrace ‘Contrarian’ Views

Optimism is great, and new ideas and concepts can get an entire business energized and excited. Most CEOs will welcome such moments. But they may need to take a step back and be skeptical while weighing it all, as Bell explains.

“When everyone thinks things are great, ask yourself where you could stumble, and talk with the leadership team more about competitive threats,” he advises. “Be overtly contrarian, even paranoid. When things are bad, the CEO is the single most important voice reassuring everyone that there will be better days. Do this in a reasoned way, explain with data why you think circumstances will improve, and discuss what needs to be done.”

Target Growth

If innovation is a top goal, growth can go right along with that. A story on defines growth as a critical priority for CEOs, and uses an IBM Global C-Suite Study to illustrate the point. The study showed that “CEOs of more successful companies are highly focused on growth, including launching new products or services, finding new business models, cultivating deeper customer relationships, pursuing innovation as a long-term strategy, expanding geographically, and creating deeper ecosystems.”

Set the Right Example

Stress gets to all of us. We all handle it in different ways, whether it’s in public or private. But as Bell writes, CEOs should place a priority on staying professional at all times, especially in front of employees.

“If you are temperamental, take it outside,” he says. “Go for a walk. Employees mirror the mood of the CEO more than they should, but it’s a fact. If you slouch and look glum, they think something is wrong with the business. If you are a screamer, well, nothing good comes of that. If you want to complain, do so at home. Don’t indulge in office gossip either. You have a different role than any other in the company. Honor it.”