20 Things You Can Do In 20 Minutes to Be More Successful at Work

There are things you can do in just 20 minutes that can have a meaningful and even a long term positive effect on your IT organization, your career, your technology knowledge, your management skills and your relationship with the business. We've gathered 20 of the best ideas we could find.

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6. Call a Customer (Bonus Points If They're Irate)

That's right—volunteer to contact a real, live customer.

"Much of what IT is involved in directly impacts the business product and service and the end consumer/customer," says Jack J. Santos, CIO Executive Strategist at the Burton Group.

Reach out to your closest contact in sales, marketing or customer service. Ask for a customer you can contact who's been outspoken in the past. It wouldn't hurt to pick a high-value or highly visible customer. "A positive exchange could create great buzz afterward which reaches other parts of the company," says Santos. Want to really wow people? Ask for an unsatisfied customer whose experience IT might have the power to turn around.

The definition of customer will depend on your business. A hospital CIO might talk to a physician who's dealing with electronic records management or, if the organization is technologically sophisticated, a patient. Try a doc who doesn't normally interact with IT or a patient who has.

This dialogue keeps you in touch with the real customer experience, says Santos, and it sends a message to the customer that the company cares. "It's perceived [by the customer] as astounding follow-up customer service."

-S.O.

7. Life Without E-Mail

When it comes to personal communication strategies, IT workers usually follow their CIO's lead. So if the CIO is always forwarding e-mails, adding to the cc line, piling attachments on top of attachments, IT staffers are sure to follow. Or, if the CIO displays greater comfort messaging with her BlackBerry than in interacting with peers, staffers will model that behavior.

To encourage more face-to-face interactions with internal and external customers, and to fight e-mail overload, CIOs should spend 20 minutes explaining to their col­leagues and IT staffers why e-mail- free Fridays (or any other day of the week) is a good idea. And here's why: Companies that swear by "say no to e-mail" days (or even half days) find that it leads to more proactive decision making, better relations among coworkers and increased awareness of customer needs. Instead of an e-mail, staffers will pick up a phone or even drop by a customer or colleague in person.

Intel discovered that its employees were wasting six hours a week on e-mail. So a team has been piloting a range of initiatives, one of which is "Zero e-mail Friday." According to one of the team leaders, Nathan Zeldes, the goal is to attack a "cube culture" in which engineers, sometimes seated just a few feet from each other, rely on e-mail to exchange ideas. (The pilot finished in February and the team is spending March collecting data, interviewing users and drawing conclusions.) Other companies, such as Deloitte & Touche and U.S. Cellular, report success switching off e-mail for periods such as weekends. "All it takes," says Zeldes, "is one manager to decide to do something about it." What are you waiting for?

-Thomas Wailgum

8. Say Yes to Staff Training

In 20 minutes, you can authorize a budget line for training or, even more quickly and inexpensively, send an e-mail to your staff to encourage them to pick up on something new. And tell them they are expected to spend one day a month learning. Make it an official day on everyone's calendar.

"A lot of 9 to 5-ers out there don't have the time or interest to expand their horizons," says Julie Lerman, a Vermont-based .Net software consultant who is active in the computer user group community. In 20 minutes, you can take the first step to help those employees find out what they're missing and add critical skills to your organization.

One no-cost way to do this is to encourage participation in computer user group meetings and industry associations. Lerman gives the example of some developers who attended a free, full day MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network) training class, which showed off the new features in Visual Studio 2008. "These guys' eyes opened wide," says Lerman. "So now their interest has been piqued and it will be important for their managers to keep them looking for and wanting new information."

-Esther Schindler

9. And Who Are You?

An impromptu chat with someone on your staff can make that person nervous and can seem contrived if you're not in the habit of doing it. So get in the habit.

"Why are you wandering around?" asks Gerry McCartney, vice president of IT at Purdue University. "Because that's what a good boss does."

Visits with employees let you gather intelligence about what's going on in your organization-as well as help you build relationships that make it more cohesive. "If you believe that your people are the key to your success, building a personal connection is an important piece of sustaining their commitment," says Tom Murphy, senior vice president and CIO with AmerisourceBergen. "It also gives you a view of organization realities that you don't necessarily get when dealing just with your direct reports."

Just don't ask, How's it going? "Be specific," advises Murphy. And whatever you say, make sure you mean it. "People know if you're genuinely interested in their opinions and observations," Murphy says.

McCartney lays the groundwork for conversations with employees by spending a few minutes getting to know every new hire within his or her first two weeks on the job. "I think those folks are more inclined to talk to me later because when we met [there] wasn't a business agenda," he says. In fact, he makes it a point to engage employees in neutral situations, such as at an office luncheon.

When he brings up work, McCartney asks his staff to suggest ways to make their jobs easier and to make themselves more effective. They might not have much to say the first time, he says. But if they get the idea that he's approachable, they'll feel more comfortable coming to him when they do have something important to say.

-Elana Varon

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