ManagementSpeak: I’m trying to make the best use of your time.
Translation: Get back to work!
Alternate Translation: I have better uses for my time.
IS Survivalist Matt Olson provided us with an fine example of the art — an excellent use of his time.

A roommate of mine … a student of military history when he wasn’t busy becoming a biochemist … explained the nature of leadership. “Good leaders can make decisions,” he explained. “Great ones make the right decision at least 51% of the time.”

Then there’s Mark, the executive whose signature you need so you can proceed with a capital purchase.

You’d think an experienced executive like Mark would be able to make decisions. For some reason, though, he looks at decisions the way you or I look at rabid skunks — as things to be avoided at all costs.

Then, Mark starts to avoid you. Embarrassed about having procrastinated, he doesn’t return your voice mails and e-mails. He sits on the other side of the room in meetings, and leaves before you can collar him.

What to do about Mark?

Your top priority is making sure you aren’t him. There are lots of reasons people fail to return messages. Decision-avoidance is only one of them. Time management is a second. Then there’s the one most of us won’t admit to: Attention Overload — we have the time, but we Just Can’t Cope.

Take a quick look at your e-mail inbox. Do you see any week-old unreturned messages? Congratulations … you’re Mark.

What’s a poor manager to do?

Don’t sort them. Don’t prioritize them. Reserve a half-hour of your time, and blast through everything that’s piled up waiting for your attention. But before you do …

If your e-mail system lets you define multiple “signatures”, prepare several standard responses. One says, “Thanks for the information.” Another reads, “I can’t deal with this right now. Use your best judgment and tell me what you decided.” A third says, “Thanks for the suggestion, but I don’t think we should proceed with this,” (or some other ManagementSpeak for “No”). A fourth, the opposite, says, “Good idea — go with it and tell me how it comes out.”

And make sure you have one that says, “We need to talk about this. My on-line calendar is up-to-date, so go ahead and schedule a phone call.” (Note: The single biggest benefit of a PDA is that it lets you keep your calendar on-line while still having it with you when you need to schedule an appointment.)

Now, blitz through your e-mails and clear out the ones for which your stock answers are suitable. Chances are, what remains will be manageable. If not, take a second pass through and think harder … do you really need to be personally involved, or can you accept the sender’s best judgment? Do you really need more time to think and analyze? What’s preventing you from saying yes or no right now? Remember, a decision may be right or wrong, but no decision … or even worse, responding with silence … is always wrong, and always demoralizing.

Now … what to do about Mark and your capital proposal, or whatever else it is that’s lost on his desk. Answer: Print out a fresh copy and camp at his doorstep until he’s available. Walk in and say, “Hi Mark. I thought I’d sent this to you, but it must have gotten lost in bit heaven. We’re at a point where we need a decision one way or the other, or we’ll have a lot of people sitting with nothing to do. Can I get you to focus on this for a few minutes so we can get it resolved?”

If Mark works in a different location, send a fresh copy of whatever it is that needs approval by e-mail and pick up the phone. Don’t leave a voice mail — keep re-dialing until you connect. That’s what speed-dial buttons are for.

There are two types of manager — those who get signatures, and those who don’t. If you want to be part of the first group there’s a simple rule: Walk your request around to everyone who has to approve it and ask them face to face. It’s a lot easier to turn you down at a distance.

All it takes is silence.