Compartmentalize: A Tool of Leadership


We often associate the word with negative meanings such as the emotionally distant manager that blocks feelings, ignores experiences, and focuses only on what they want. It may have sounded heartless to explore how becoming skillful in this could help my client succeed in a new, stretch assignment that had the scope and complexity of three people.  As he considered how to do this I asked: “How well can you compartmentalize?”

Compartmentalizing is a highly used skill of leaders when maximum results are required, and life is at capacity.  It’s a short-term solution that helps us progress towards long term results. 

The Ability to Compartmentalize

It’s the ability to laser focus, separate each opportunity or issue, and make incremental progress in each one. It requires shutting out the emotional noise inside, selecting the compartments that matter, and taking small steps forward in each one.  

What gets in the way of compartmentalizing?  The answers vary and range from struggling to detach from the need to finish, to the emotional attachment to the issue, to wanting to control other’s decisions.  

When we successfully learn how to compartmentalize, we move forward with confidence and clarity when the plates are spinning around us.

Compartmentalizing helped me after the sudden death, estate work, and legal battles of my husband while I was also in a demanding, high travel job.  It’s also a skill that many clients are working on if they take seriously their responsibilities to family, work, and life — as their roles are easily out of human proportion. This skill helps them set boundaries and get results without bogging down in the details.  

Ryan Blair, CEO of ViSalus and a successful serial entrepreneur knows it well. Ryan became a compartmentalizing wizard at a young age and suggests the following in his Forbes article:

5 Steps of Compartmentalization:

1. Isolate the issue from all other challenges you’re dealing with.

2. Uber focus on each issue, as if they were in separate compartments, for only a short period of time.

3. Move forward in incremental steps and then…

4. Close the compartment (mentally and emotionally = no more energy) and open the next compartment.

5. Say “no” to those things which don’t deserve a compartment.

“The ability to compartmentalize, prioritize, and focus enough time on each area in order to make incremental progress towards a decision will be your most important skill set to achieve significant success.”   

This skill has frequently been named by my clients as one of the greatest leverage points of executive leadership.  This is partially why it became a goal for this new leader. The other reason is that life seems driven by distraction and input overload. Compartmentalization needs a quiet inner state from which to see what matters most and create compartments.  In later blogs, we’ll find out what practice he added to anchor his inner state before the heavy lifting started each day.

For those that want to look more at how to compartmentalize, look around you.  I suspect it’s been around under different names for decades. Refer to anyone who’s worked hard and made a difference in their world.   I suspect my grandmother had this skill. Her strong work ethic and faith had helped her survive America’s dustbowl days and live to see the first landing on the moon. She’d frequently say:  

If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward. Focus one step at a time, always forward.

Whatever your role, I trust you’ll find ways to learn to compartmentalize when you’re overwhelmed and want to move forward.  

If you’d like to schedule a coaching session with Kim to learn how to compartmentalize as a means of advancing important initiatives, click here. 

If you’d like to read more of my blogs, click here.

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