Determine Top Priorities to Achieve Results

Focus on Priorities

Action planning is the process where leaders engage in collective conversations with their teams to gain insights on best-practice strategies. Most importantly, the process ensures individual team members have the specific action steps, tools, and resources needed to achieve the organization’s overall goals. Leaders must be able to first determine priorities in order to build action plans that yield results.

Build Action Plans Around Priorities

Building action plans aligned to organizational priorities is a skill that high-performing leaders, such as Dr. Sanita Cousar, practice, refine, and master. Dr. Cousar serves as Chief Human Resources Officer at the Richland County School District One, in Columbia, SC. At a recent leadership conference, Destination High Performance, in San Antonio, TX, Cousar shared with us how she and her team determine, monitor, and stick to priorities in order to build successful actions plans.

In setting the district’s priorities for action planning, she began with the data, which she calls “filtered data.”

You have to filter out the emotions and the assumptions, without defending the data in order to see what the data tells.

Cousar ran reports, had sample data, as well as formal and informal measures. She explained that simply taking the time to observe was key in seeing how the organization was operating and the reality of the situation.

After we got the data and analyzed the findings, I found it helpful for me as a leader, to try to ascertain the root cause. I then engaged the staff in discussing the data. I used tools such as the 5 Whys to actually see the root causes of the problems we were having. I cannot stress enough how important team involvement was. Even though I had done some analysis, I relied on the team to bring out critical information, as well as confirm and bring revelations to what we were working with.

Cousar then used visioning techniques—a powerful technique to start with the end in mind.

I wanted to help the team live in the present, but speak the future. What is it going to look like? How will it feel when we get there? What will we be able to do that we cannot do now? I used a bone diagram, and we started with the present, looked at where we wanted to be in the future, and discussed the obstacles that we may have to overcome. We also discussed the resources that will help us along the way.

determine priorities

The organization’s priorities came out of this process. Cousar continuously reminded her team that the priorities couldn’t all be overwhelming—they had to have some short-term, simpler goals to help boost morale and help achieve some of the easier tasks.

That really helped motivate the staff. We had to keep the priorities at the forefront. We visually determined what our goals are. Operationally, we had to focus on those goals. It became a natural part of our staff meetings and our operations. We use this in our rounding, as well as infuse it in our evaluations to make sure everything we are doing is in line with the priorities that we set. Sometimes, there were things that would pop up that weren’t aligned with our priorities. For instance, one of the secretaries wanted access to a database to print check stubs as we went to a new software. We talked about going paperless and having seamless operations, but I said no—that’s not in line with where we are going. We don’t need that capability. Here, I was monitoring and making sure that everything we were doing was in line with the priorities we set.

It can be easy to want to stick to rigid guidelines in carrying out action plans; however, Cousar makes sure to keep in mind that priorities change along the way.

As you implement and accomplish something, you may find that you’re not structured to fulfill that obligation, that you need other resources, or people in different places. For example, when we got a new software, the employee who was a full-time scanner now uses her expertise and expends her duties to accomplish something else that is a priority. It is very fluid.

As demonstrated by Cousar and her team at Richland One, when accomplishing goals to achieve results, we must continuously reset and look at where we are. When we do so, we are able to efficiently build action plans around our top priorities. Cousar and her organization are truly on a continuous improvement journey towards organizational excellence.


Asti Kelley, Studer Education

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