Leaders Understand the Benefits (& Pitfalls) of Deadlines

April 15 and "taxes' circled on desk calendar

Tax day is approaching! In the United States, “tax day” is April 15th. This is the deadline for tax returns. This year, because April 15th falls on a Saturday, taxes are due on Tuesday, April 18th. But for practical purposes, April 15th is “tax day.” Have you completed your taxes yet? Perhaps you got off to an early start. You have already filed your taxes and received your return. Me? I completed my tax return today. But because my wife is out of town (and she needs to sign it), I won’t get it in the mail for another week. But at least I’m done. Woo hoo!

I know every country is different with respect to taxes and I certainly don’t pretend to understand global tax code (I don’t even understand all the US tax code). But in the US, taxes are a pain! The tax code is super long and there are specialists, lawyers, and accountants who specialize in the field. And for a tidy little fee, they’ll help you understand the tax code as well. Well, not really, but they’ll do your taxes for you.

Taxes can be daunting. I remember years ago going to the US Post Office to pick up the forms I’d need. You hoped they had the right forms and you hoped you knew which forms to use. I kinda learned as I went. My initial returns were easy and straightforward. One of the hardest questions during those days was who would claim my new bride as a dependent the first year we were married, me or my father-in-law. We couldn’t both claim her as a dependent (and we each wanted the deduction). Over the years, completing my taxes became increasingly difficult as I bought and sold homes, stock, options, RSUs, had children, moved multiple times between states and lived abroad.

For 4 years, my taxes were prepared by Deloitte. This was because I had lived outside the US and my taxes were more complicated than normal. I recall my returns being 150 pages long! And that was just for my US taxes. Deloitte also prepared a foreign tax return on my behalf as well. In a couple years, the length of my tax returns totaled over 200 pages. Really! Does it have to be this difficult?

But aside from the 4 years Deloitte completed my tax returns, I’ve done my own, over 3 decades of completing my own taxes. And like most people, I don’t complete my return as soon as I have all the required forms and statements. I wait. I procrastinate. Even during the years when I receive a large return, I don’t complete my return as early as possible. I wait.

Why is that? Well, there’s a deadline. I don’t have to complete (postmark) my taxes until April 15th. And they’re complicated. I have a lot of documents and statements to organize. And not everything is clear and straightforward. I don’t like doing my taxes, even when I’m getting a refund. “Easy,” I hear you say. “Have someone else do your taxes for you.” Well, it’s not that easy. You see, the part about tax preparation I like the least is getting all the paperwork ready and organized. What’s the point in having someone else get paid to do the easy part while I have to do the hard work. I might as well take care of the “administrivia,” complete the tax returns, and keep my hard-earned cash.

Regardless of my distain for doing taxes (PS I think the tax code is burdensome and there should be a tiered flat tax), I do them. But I wait. The April 15th deadline gives my permission to wait. The same is true with all deadlines. You don’t “have to” complete a task BEFORE the deadline. All you have to do it get the task completed BY the deadline.

Great leaders know that deadlines give people permission (excuses) to wait. You don’t have to complete your tax returns in February. You can wait. And this is okay. Deadlines “force” one to take action (assuming they wait to avoid the negative consequences associated with missing the deadline). Great leaders know that deadlines also help keep work, projects and initiatives on track. They also help achieve bottom-line results. Did you know most large projects are completed using deadlines? Of course they’re usually called “milestones” but it’s really the same thing.

So are deadlines good or bad? Neither. They help provide prioritization to certain tasks. They generate action. They help organize and keep things moving along toward an end goal. Great leaders know that there are benefits to using deadlines. We often need deadlines to “force” us to do those tasks we’d rather avoid. But great leaders also know that deadlines also allow for delay. They don’t necessarily achieve results in the shortest cycle time.

Great leaders think about changing the consequences for delivering work. Think about this example. What if a sales manager said, “All call reports are due by the last Friday of the month?” When do you think they’ll come in? You got it. The last Thursday and Friday of the month. But what if the sales manager said, as soon as you get a call report completed, I’ll give you a $5 gift certificate to Starbucks? Would her sales reps wait until the end of the month to complete all their call reports or would they do them real-time, throughout the month.

Changing the consequence doesn’t always require an outlay of dollars. There are many meaningful non-financial consequences. The key is to think about the behavior you want and whether a deadline is the best way to achieve it. Great leaders use deadlines when appropriate but they use other means of providing consequences when fast delivery of actions and results is required.

Have a great week and remember to be aware of your deadlines. Rule them. Don’t let them rule you!

is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]LeadStrategic.com.

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