Essentialism is My New Religon

Well, it’s not all that new. I was first exposed to Greg McKeown’s book “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” a few years ago at a CEO forum for public media leaders. What I liked about this day long forum is that it’s really not as grandiose as “Leader’s in your field” meetings tend to sound.

The organizers took great pains to make it practical. There were updates on specific and pertinent topics and idea shares that were in the moment and not full of fluff. It was an eight hour day with the last couple of hours devoted to professional development and navel gazing. Exactly when most of the room decided it was time to grab an hour or two up in their rooms.

We’ve all skipped out on sessions like this. I’m glad I didn’t. This one became my bible. I’ve always felt a bit jealous of people who seem to have so many meetings, so in demand that they are perceived as being the cool kids in the room. So I never said no to a meeting hoping to be as cool as they were. I never turned down a project no matter how on the side of my primary focus. I found myself being unavailable to my staff. I found myself so exhausted at the end of the day that I made errors on spreadsheets.

But I was working on some pretty high level stuff. And I wanted to work on even higher level stuff. But then Greg spoke like an Preacher….well with his accent more like a Vicar. He defined a way of thinking that most of us have forgotten. Quality over Quality. Less is More. Learn how to say no to distractions. Simple really. But how many of us could really, right now, cross out 80% of the meetings on our schedules or resign from from task forces, or sunset a a few seemingly major projects?

So you’re going to have to read the book for all the tips and tricks but here’s what it did for me and my organization. We spent some time narrowing down the top three priorities at WTMD. I asked the staff to really think what were the three most important priorities for WTMD. At the time, we were facing a big transition in our governance, right after we moved into a new facility.

I had just gotten many staff members to realize that our days of outward focusing, like being present at ever hot and sticky street festival were over and that our air conditioned new digs were an attraction for our listeners to come too. It was hard to let go of old thinking after ten years of operating in the basement of a 1959 building in the center of the campus core. So we did the sticky notes on the flip chart thing. We formed small groups to discuss the priorities.

We argued over which ones were really more important than others. We knew increasing revenue was a priority, but which revenue? And why not programing as a priority? The discussions were great. They were passionate and constructive. They were actually kind of fun. Yes, sometimes I had to enforce focus and steer a stray staff member back to the core of the conversation. Yes, we had bagles; Yes I took them out for beers when we made breakthroughs. It took about a month. At the end we all agreed to one simple statement: “We will only engage in activities that contribute to the long term sustainability of WTMD.” Think about that for a moment. We did.

We thought about it all the time. I made a poster of it “Are you coming in here to talk about and Idea that contributes to the long term sustainability of WTMD?” I hung it on my office door as a reminder to all of us. I held myself to the same standard. I gave my staff permission to call me out when I wanted veer off course with my own time. It was tempting to join industry wide examinations of this or that. But the this and that rarely could be put in the context of WTMD’s long term sustainability.

So did it work? I think so. I think it gave everyone the freedom to dream bigger than they had before but limiting the number of things they were asked to help out with. We saw increases in membership and underwriting. We increased the number of major donors. I spent more time listening to my staff when conflicts arose and created higher quality processes and policies and I applied them more evenly. I spent more time on the things that mattered to them and less on things that mattered to me. That sounds so Linked In doesn’t it?

But there is some truth to it. Sure, I had to deliver the bad news that I didn’t feel a particular idea didn’t fit our mantra, but I allowed myself to be overruled by my senior managers if they disagreed. That’s a luxury you gain by hiring exceptional people. So read the book.



Stephen Yasko

Stephen Yasko is a Public Radio and Media Executive and Nonprofit Executive Director. Yasko is the Founding General Manager of WTMD 89.7 FM in Baltimore where he took a neglected asset to a top 10 NPR Music radio station. He moved WTMD from a basement hovel to a state of the art Broadcast facility located in the center of Towson, MD.