How To Keep Your Plates Spinning in 2010

Posted 01.08.2010

Platespinning I’m old enough to remember the guys who used to come on The Ed Sullivan Show to spin plates. It was an amazing act. The fast music would start and the guy would get about five bowls spinning on top of sticks and have another eight plates spinning between the sticks. He would be running back and forth spinning one plate while looking out the corner of his eye for the next plate that needed a spin. Just about the time one was ready to crash, he’d give it a spin. That was some great TV.  As Ed used to say, “A really big show.”  (For a really fun three minute example of what I’m talking about, click on this authorized You Tube link of plate spinner Erich Brenn on the Sullivan show in 1969.)

Plate spinning came to mind earlier this week when I had lunch with a friend and former client who recently took a senior technology executive role with a well known global company. I asked him how it was going and he said, “Remember when I used to talk about my job being like plate spinning?  Well, in this job there are enough plates to keep me spinning for years so I’ve decided I’m only going to be spinning about three plates at a time.”

Because his company recently moved their headquarters, my friend and his senior colleagues are building teams of people to take over roles in which the predecessors didn’t make the move. So, it’s almost like a start-up situation and there’s just way more to do than can possibly be done in a given time frame. His situation is not much different than a lot of leaders these days. Most everyone is leading in a do more with less environment. That’s certainly how things were in 2009 and 2010 likely won’t be much different.

So, how do you, as a leader, keep your plates spinning this year?  Here are some tips from my expert plate spinning friend:

Count your plates:
  Before you start spinning, step back to assess all of the plates that could be in your act.  You can’t spin ‘em  if you don’t know you have ‘em.

Stack your plates:  What we mean here is stack your plates in some sort of priority sequence.  Within in a given time frame, what plates have to be spun before you even start worrying about spinning other plates?

Spin a demo plate:  Especially if you’re new to the role, like my friend is in his, pick a plate to spin that will be seen as a demonstration of the kind of value that you and your team can add.  A month after arriving on the job, my friend was able to meet the expectations of his board and executive vice president by working with a vendor to install a succession planning software system.  By focusing his attention on this plate, he was able to deliver something important for the company and build some credibility and momentum for himself and his team.

Spin a couple of more plates:  In addition to your demo plate, pick another couple of plates to spin that are clearly important to the organization.

Salad plates are OK too:  Some of the things you’re responsible for are going to be dinner plates that are just too big to keep spinning.  When faced with that situation, look for the salad plate that will help you make progress on spinning the bigger plate.  In other words, break big projects down into their component parts.

Share some plates:  Maybe you’re not the best person to be spinning a particular plate.  There might be someone else who has an act that’s a better fit or there may be aspiring plate spinners who could use a developmental challenge.

Leave some plates out of the act:  There may be some plates that, in the greater scheme of things, just are worth spinning.  Give yourself some time to regularly assess what needs to be in the act and what can be cut.

Take your bows:   Every good performer knows how to take a bow.  In the context of organizational leadership, it’s important to let the audience know when you’ve successfully completed the act.  I’m not talking about braggadocio here.  What I’m talking about is sharing how the good work of your team has positioned the organization to move forward.  Your team and your boss will appreciate it.

So, I’m sure some of you are pretty expert plate spinners yourself. What works for you? What would you add to the list of tips?