by Pat Brans

DuPont’s Phuong Tram’s time management tips

Dec 22, 2010
CareersIT LeadershipManufacturing Industry

Phuong Tram is global CIO of­ DuPont, the US-based chemical corporation that sits about halfway down the list of the 500 largest companies in the world. Somehow he manages to keep his colossal organisation at the forefront of the information age while maintaining a family life and practising several hobbies.

“When it comes to time management, everybody’s different,” he says. “No two people have the same mission and priorities, and different folks have different challenges. But what I can tell you is that I’m doing much better than I was 10 years ago. And I know why. Based on my own evolution, I can share three secrets that might help other people.

“The first thing is that I’m very careful to focus on what’s important. In my job, that means making good things happen for the company. If somebody sends me mail on an urgent matter, if it’s not as important as something else I have in front of me, I do not jump on it right away.”

This refusal to let the urgent squeeze out the important serves Tram well. He alone understands the different priorities in front of him, so he has to be prepared to turn things down to minimise distraction for himself and his team. “Because I’m so much more focused on what’s important,” he says, “I stand a better chance of getting the big things done.”

Tram’s second trick is to take the time to set up solid processes. If you’re CIO, it is important to get an accurate picture of your situation. “In my job,” he says, “that means defining the right metrics and having teams in different geographies or in different parts of the organisation report the values, so at any time we have a clear view of what’s happening.”

The lesson here is if you slow down to build things to run without your attention, you can reap the benefits long afterwards.

Tram’s third secret is about aligning himself with natural laws – riding whatever waves are out there. He says, “The third thing that makes a difference for me is that I concentrate on peoples’ capabilities. I know my strengths and I know the strengths of my team, so I align our workload accordingly. I don’t try to change what’s immutable. Instead I try to make the best of the world around me.”

Anybody observing Tram from the outside might wonder, with the kind of job he has, why isn’t he sweating more? Not only is he comfortable in his job, he also takes the time to participate in several sports, including swimming and skiing. And he makes sure he spends enough time with his family.

In fact, these different aspects of his life work together as a virtuous cycle. He gets a lot of exercise, which gives him the energy and concentration he needs at work. And because he has a good family life, when he’s at work, he can focus on his job. His profession involves intensive intellectual activity, which then leads to a desire to get out and do exhilarating sports.

Since he finishes what needs to be done at work, and because he exercises to his desire, he can put it all out of his mind when he’s with his family. The different parts of his life, ­arranged together in an upward spiral, spew out the positive results you need to become CIO.

So how does Tram know what’s important? He leaves time for what he calls “deep thinking”. This is when he takes a step back to look at the big picture. Far from traditional meditation, Tram’s deep thinking involves pacing around in his office and sometimes speaking to himself out loud. While this might seem odd, it’s precisely this process that allows him to sift through everything on his plate and discover what’s most important.

How many of us schedule time just to think? Given that a fundamental tenet of time management is to do the right things (and not just do things right), effort spent in choosing the tasks with the highest ­impact should be top priority. Here is a good example of how slowing down is the best way to go faster.

The most powerful time management tips don’t just promise incremental change – they are the ones that allow you to jump up to a new order of magnitude.

Perhaps we should all walk around our offices and mumble to ourselves.

Pat Brans is author of Master The Moment: Fifty CEOs Teach you the Secrets of Time Management, and is visiting professor at the Grenoble Graduate School of Business