Exec With Clear Boundaries

4 Easy Ways To Think Like An Executive With Clear Boundaries

“Take a strategic approach to setting boundaries and managing your workload.”

This was from something I posted in 2015.

What would happen if I made this Call to Action now? 

After all, a lot has happened since 2015. 

Is this topic still relevant? Are people still looking for help with this?

Absolutely! For all kinds of reasons, people still find it hard to say “no”.

This was the state of things in May 2015:

  • Inboxes are overflowing and flooded with new requests


  • Resources are stretched more than ever before


  • Outsourcing is a constant and increasingly realistic fear

If you ask me, these 3 things have only gotten worse! People need help in this area more than ever.

By the way, if you’re good at your job and valued by your superiors, I’m pretty sure you’re being asked to do more…with less.

But keep in mind, if there’s a lot on your plate, there’s more on theirs’ (here’s a secret – they’re thinking of what’s on their plate, not yours’).

According to Executive Recruiters Ogders Berndtson, 94% of executives reported that they made themselves available to answer emails day and night (probably higher now than in 2015!).

Nevertheless, executives must also be able to draw clear boundaries – there’s no way they would be at this level without clear boundaries!

Add personal commitments and misguided beliefs like ‘busy = important’ and this issue has reached a boiling point. The global pandemic only made it worse.

Apropos busyness, if you really want to master this skill, you need to be aware of its high cost:

Leadership Challenge

You’re a defensive midfielder and captain of your soccer team. Your coach and teammates look to you for guidance on and off the field.

This season you’ve been asked to play at a position that feels somewhat unnatural. You now have to cover a much larger area on the pitch. Although you welcomed the challenge at first, you see now that you were unprepared for it. 

To make matters worse you’ve often been frustrated by the lack of support from your teammates. “Where is everybody and what the hell are they doing!?”

You’ve wondered why the coach hasn’t stepped in and made some needed changes at critical moments.

injured legYou’ve also been playing at less than full speed with a nagging knee injury.  However, you continue to play through the pain. 

Despite the pain killers and post-match ice treatments, it’s growing worse with each match. Nevertheless, the coach keeps asking more of you and the expectations of everyone continue to skyrocket.

Next week you’ve got a big game coming up and the match result will affect your playoff chances. In other words, it’s a “must-win”.

What do you do?


Developing Solution Orientation

Back to real life…

Here are 4 actionable tips to help you meet your specific leadership challenges right now:

1) Look at the Big Picture

Before you can change anything you first need to understand the situation and reasons why you’re being asked to do so much (e.g. merger).

To put the situation in a broader context, ask yourself these 2 questions:

Question 1: Is my increased workload temporary or is it on-going and systemic?

If it’s short-term, decide if it’s discomfort you can live with (if so, find a way to deal with it until it passes – the recognition that it’s not forever helps).

It can also be a chance for you to step up and shine – a leadership vacuum always presents opportunity.

Question 2: Are people taking advantage of me or are they turning to me because they trust me and value my work?

Change the narrative from: “My boss is always taking advantage of me” to “My boss has a lot of confidence in my ability to get things done…and do them well.”

Putting things into perspective and changing the story will help you for the next steps.

2) Ask for Support

If you’re having trouble managing your workload, ask your team members and superiors for help.

Here are 2 benefits that can result from asking your boss to help you prioritize your work:

Benefit 1: It helps you clearly communicate the situation.

Benefit 2: It creates transparency which can lead to alternative, even better solutions.

Remember, they don’t know all that’s on your plate and probably don’t have the time to find out.

If you were a soccer coach, would you go around before the match and ask all the players how they were doing, feeling, etc.?

Probably not. But, you would expect them to come and tell you if they had a sore ankle or were feeling sick.

If they didn’t, the overall team results could be catastrophic.

Asking for support will help you take the next step.

3) Communicate the Big Picture

Take the time to clearly communicate the full reality of your situation, i.e. the Big Picture.

Explain how taking on more will affect other deadlines and priorities.

You can also offer to find others who could support instead of you (another opportunity to step up and shine).

Can you spot the difference between A and B?

A) “I can’t handle any more – sorry, my plate is full.”

B) “If I take on this new project, I won’t be able to hold my other deadlines that we set together. Would you like to shift our priorities or is there someone else who could help us out on this?”

There’s a big difference between just pushing back (A) and making your supervisor aware of everything that’s on your plate and the consequences of reshuffling (B).

PRO TIP: The key is to stay involved in the solution. Suggesting other team members for the work shows you are a team player and focused on the good of the whole team or group.

4) Think before Accepting

Before accepting something new, ask yourself these 3 questions:

  1. Do I have the time and energy capacity for this?
  1. How will it affect my other tasks and priorities?
  1. Am I the best person for this or is there someone else we can enlist?

If you do accept, make sure the timelines are realistic and you have the time and resources you need!

PRO TIP: Do not accept and then ask for a time extension later. This would not reflect well on you. Have the courage to say at the beginning how much time you need.

Growing Executive Mindset

In summary, here are the actions that will help you draw clear boundaries and effectively manage your workload like an executive:

  • Get clarity on the situation – is it temporary or permanent?

  • Ask for the support you need – even if it’s just advice or brainstorming.

  • Communicate the Big Picture to your supervisor and collaborators, involving them if needed.

  • Before saying “yes”, ask yourself if you really have the capacity…if you don’t, have the courage to say “no”.

Above all, clearly communicate what you can and can’t take on. But also, about what you do and don’t want to take on. This is thinking and acting like an executive. 

Speaking of executive behavior, you don’t have to be an executive to have Executive Presence. But if you ever want to be one, it’s a MUST-HAVE.

If you’d like to develop this skill, get FREE COPY of the Executive Presence Self Assessment.

  • Hi Tim,

    Great read, thank you!

    It is a structured, very practical piece of text. Very easy to follow, even for a structure-freak like me. It is a good mixture of theory and real-life application. I recognize a few powerful psychological principles explained in a very hands-on manner (self-awareness, self-control/regulation, self-efficacy, taking a step back and seeing yourself and your actions in a context, distinguishing between events that you can/cannot control, etc.)

    I really liked your concrete scenarios and examples of differences in attitudes, for example ‘I cannot handle this, my plate is full vs. if I take on this project, I will not be able to deliver on XXX, would you mind adding someone to support me’). I always find these concrete scenarios very powerful.

    The example from soccer may not be 100% relevant to all readers, I am a borderline example, yet you managed to make it easy to understand, even if one does not necessarily understand the technical and strategic points behind soccer.

    I find self-awareness and self-control/regulation to be key in managing these kinds of situations. The next step in more detail and into a stage that comes prior to this could be to explore the journey of how to actually get there. For example, currently the text is based on the assumption that the readers know how to do this. It may be also interesting to explore a few concrete steps on how to get to a state where you are a self-regulated state, letting go of a few things you cannot change and taking accountability for those you can.

    Looking forward to a follow up 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment, Marcela. I agree that self-awareness is key. I see it as the first step to self-regulation – perhaps a future blog post:-). BR, Tim

    • Hi Marcela,

      I wanted to come back to your comment about self-regulation and ask – what support you keeping self-control/regulation? Also, what role does awareness play in that process?

  • Tim, I am very much aligned with your approach,

    Step 1: Look at the Big Picture
    Step 2: Ask For Support
    Step 3: Communicate the Big Picture
    Step 4: Think Before Accepting

    It`s all about contributions and needs, the big picture of all puzzle pieces that everyone in the team brings in and the needs behind, the need of everyone to be at his/her best and hence contributing his puzzle piece into the big picture, aligned with all other puzzle pieces…

    Therefore I would add Step 0, which is to gain clarity about these puzzle pieces, the gifts, that I have, the needs behind, my specific “seeds” (my purpose) and the “weeds”, unconscious energy blockers or automatized behavior routines…

    this is very essential for a powerful “field”…. as it paves the ground for confident vulnerability, the courage to show what I can and even more important to show what I can`t and what I am not good at. … this is space where I can invite others to show their brilliant gifts… and build up mutual trust.

    Clarity about self precedes clarity of the situation..

    • Hi Maria,

      Yes, I love your Step 0 – clarity should always come first! And I totally agree with your statement: Clarity about self precedes clarity of the situation…

      What tips would you give to someone who is just starting to navigate the puzzle and the weeds? This can be a really scary thing.