As your plane pulls away from the terminal, you cram in a few more emails before the flight attendant forces you to turn off your smartphone. With 2013 kicking into gear, you’re on the run again-racing from meeting to meeting, conducting multiple conversations on the fly, barely having time to think of the consequences of the decisions you’re making. New Year’s resolutions are already long forgotten or abandoned. Confident of your productivity, you sink back into your seat to read another report.
I often wonder why it is that January finds us, in no time at all, returning to stress and overwhelm. We usually intend to come back from the holidays recharged and ready to hit the ground running. Yet January finds us facing the same challenges we left in 2012: needing to increase revenues in a tight market, attempting to improve the competencies of our people, trying to enroll people to move in a new direction, dealing with resistance to our new vision for the company.
I encourage my clients to use their holiday time to take stock of what’s happening with their business, their organization, their industry, the marketplace-and to then set clear intentions for the new year. If they haven’t done so by the beginning of January, I suggest they book a time to do so during the first quarter. If we don’t take time to think strategically, we often end up paying the price later in unanticipated crises, failures and even forced disruptions of business. Taking this “Executive Think Time” ensures you’re focused on the right activities and have targeted the right results for success.
NO TIME TO THINK
“I have no time to think!” This is the phrase I hear most often from high-achieving executives. Recently, when I asked a Director in a consulting firm in the engineering industry to identify the current goals for her frontline service team, she pushed the question aside, saying she was so busy with staying on top of their duties that she didn’t have time to even think about where they were going.
Her focus on the task at hand has her working longer hours than her people, canceling one-on-one conversations to develop individuals, and steering clear of team meetings. Everyone does what they’ve always done and there’s no forum to consider new ways of doing things. There is not even time for this struggling executive to figure out how to streamline, automate, and delegate so that she can create the time for her own strategic thinking. Ironically, this conscientious executive, by not taking time to create a vision and a strategy, keeps her team and herself trapped in a vicious cycle of perpetual reactivity and overwork.
This is a risky way to do business. Like the shoemaker whose children have no shoes, this executive is so focused on simply completing tasks to keep the business operating at the status quo that she has neglected the basic planning needs of her team. This places the entire consultancy at risk. Without continually updated knowledge of the marketplace, competitors, and long-term trends, they are unable to anticipate and quickly respond to both expected and unexpected developments affecting their business environment. They may be blindsided by a disruptive new competitive offering that makes their entire service line obsolete.
TIME, BUT NO THINKING
At the very least, I recommend that managers and executives block out at least 20 to 30% of their time for uninterrupted strategic thinking. The more leadership responsibilities you have, the more Executive Think Time you’ll need.
Disrupting the routine to schedule the time for envisioning and strategizing is just the first step. Many leaders don’t take Executive Think Time because they think they can’t. Sometimes, however, a senior executive can easily create the time-but resists doing so.
A vice president in the manufacturing industry, after avoiding Executive Think Time for several months, finally revealed to me that he was uncomfortable and inexperienced at creating something from nothing. Having come up through the ranks, he had excelled at incrementally building on and executing existing visions. But he never had been called on to develop the executive skill of creating his own vision-until now. His resistance and anxiety were understandable: not knowing how to imagine the future and not knowing what to think about can seem like a career stopper.
Many people arrive at the senior executive levels unprepared for the pressure they encounter to create a future for the people they lead. Maintaining the status quo looks quite appealing when you’re unsure of your ability to invent something. There is a natural fear for leaders that they don’t want to lead their team to something that ultimately doesn’t work. And yet, this opportunity to put your stamp on the company’s direction is the very essence of any Vice President or C-level leader job.
So how can you look into the future and figure out where your company should be heading when you have no clue where to look?
TAKING TIME TO THINK COLLECTIVELY
Many high-achieving leaders mistakenly assume they have to create a vision alone. The pressure to go into your office, close the door, think about everything, and then come out with a perfect vision statement is unrealistic-and unnecessary. There’s an easier way.
Involve your team in helping you build the vision. Start conversations with your direct reports. Listen to them. Develop something together that’s based on what’s happening in the marketplace, what’s been showing up in the conversations with customers, and the in-house capabilities you have. You can then have broader conversations with your extended team and key clients.
This approach reduces your risk. Many perspectives can give you a more comprehensive and integrated picture of your current reality and what’s possible. By allowing others to inform, influence and help shape the vision, you build a stronger leadership team and avoid potential pitfalls.
As a leader, it’s your job to create conversations that will shape the future. You need time to craft those conversations. You need time to integrate other people’s perspectives. You need time to make choices. That’s the value of Executive Think Time.
Don’t think of it as time out of your schedule. Executive Think Time is the best investment you can make in your company’s long-term future-and in your career.