Senior leaders know all too well the unrelenting demands on their time – from one-on-one meetings, to direct report meetings, to public speaking events, to strategy sessions, to finance sessions, to HR issues, to legal issues, to board meetings … the list goes on.
Having spent over 30 years in the business world in a variety of roles and with extensive exposure to senior leaders, including CEOs of companies ranging from small startups to the Fortune 100, I have noticed a striking similarity: Successful senior leaders recognize their time as a strategic asset. They do not let their calendar control them. Instead, they control their calendars. I have noticed that successful senior leaders devote time to remarkably similar types of activities and tend to:
- Focus on the most critical strategic priorities. Successful senior leaders spend time on strategy. They devote time to understanding the market, the competitive landscape, and the company’s internal strengths and weaknesses. And they work with their team to craft a solid strategic management plan. Once the plan is in place, they use the plan to organize their time. Simply put, things that are high strategic priorities get time devoted to them, and low strategic priorities do not.
As CEO of eBay Inc., John Donahoe worked with upcoming eBay leaders and was known for walking back and forth in front of the group with four fingers up in the air. He would say that eBay had four strategic priorities, and if a request for his time came in, he said yes only if the request impacted the established strategic priorities.
- Carve out time to reflect, think, and plan. Given the demands on their time, the schedules of senior leaders are filled with meetings and commitments. But what about time to get their own work done? Or time to sit and think? The successful senior leaders I have encountered develop strategies to preserve “alone work time.” Pre-pandemic, commuting time seemed to be a fairly common time used for reflection and quiet thought. No cell phones, radios, or car meetings – just driving and thinking. Reflection is good, but what about the work that senior leaders have to do? Again, people used different strategies, but they all found ways to carve out regular blocks of time that were theirs alone. Some other techniques I have seen are:
- At least three days a week when in the office, a senior executive would take an hour to run at lunch — to carve out some reflection time and get in some cardio work!
- For five years I worked closely with a CEO who was in meetings nonstop from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. What most people did not know was that he arrived in the office every day no later than 7 a.m., and he would never book anything between 7 to 9 in the morning. He used that time to focus on his work – reading a strategic report, reviewing the financials, scanning resumes of critical new hires, drafting important emails, getting caught up on emails, etc. It was his time. And he not only loved the quiet and focus, but he would often say those hours were the most productive time of his day.
- Build time to address the critical, but not necessarily urgent, task of developing future leaders. I’ve spent many years of my career in leadership development. In my experience, senior leaders who make the time to work with upcoming leaders usually have stronger leadership in their organizations and, therefore, drive stronger results. Common sense tells us that if a senior leader shows up and spends time with upcoming leaders, it will positively impact the organization on a long-term basis. However, it takes a true commitment on the part of senior leadership to make this type of activity a priority.
In the L&D landscape, it is common to have senior leadership, including C-suite personnel, willing to speak and work with upcoming leaders during specialized leadership programs. What is more uncommon is senior leadership actually keeping that commitment. Far too often, commitments are canceled at the last moment, and it becomes apparent that the C-suite view is that organizational leadership development is a “nice to do” versus a need.
There are, of course, outliers to this pattern. A CEO of one of the largest energy conglomerates in the U.S. once said to me (and I paraphrase):
“If I let myself get consumed by all the daily fire drills, I’m not doing my job. My job is to spend at least half my time thinking about and building toward the company we want to be five years from now. And building a really strong and capable leadership pipeline is a critical part of that future.”
- Prioritize their greatest leadership asset – people. Successful leaders are caring, show their humanity, and are mindful that people that will make or break a successful organization. There are abundant examples in the business press about CEOs who do this well. Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell Soup, is credited with turning about a negative culture, in part by taking time to hand-write personal notes to employees. Jack Welch, the famed former CEO of GE during its glory days, was also famous for writing notes to employees. The difference in being with a leader who knows the names of many employees and takes the time to call them and someone who doesn’t bother to acknowledge the person as an individual is palpable.
I personally had the good fortune of working with a “human” leader early in my career when doing executive development and strategy work for a privately held, high growth IT firm. I was a senior manager, with occasional access to the C-suite, but was certainly not high up in the ranks. I had been working on a big project that had recently piloted. As I was getting on the elevator at corporate headquarters, the CEO jumped in as the door was closing and said, “Congratulations.” I said “Oh, thanks. You’ve already heard about it? I’m glad you heard good things.” The CEO looked at me and said “No, I mean congratulations on the important thing – your pregnancy.” I was one person in a company of 10,000 and nowhere close to his inner circle. Yet he knew I was pregnant (I wasn’t yet showing) and commented on it as “the important thing.” His appreciation for me as a human as well as a professional made a profound impact on me. Good leaders do this.
Many leaders will acknowledge their time as their most strategic asset. Yet actively managing time and intentionally prioritizing meetings and other tasks are what separates the good leaders from the great ones. While this post focuses on senior leaders, these four strategic uses of time are applicable at all levels. If frontline leaders are able to connect their goals and objectives to the strategic priorities of the business unit or the firm, they will more effectively drive strategic results. If mid-level leaders can make connections with members of their team and work to develop the next generation of leaders, the firm will be in a more strategic position.
I have shared some stories and techniques that have stood out to me in my 30 years in the business world. I challenge you to reflect on how you are using your time as a strategic lever.
- How intentionally are you managing your calendar?
- Are you blocking time on your calendar for strategic planning?
- What activities are you doing to develop future leaders on your team?
- Are your actions reinforcing the idea that leadership development and people development are important?
- What more can you do to demonstrate how you value your team?
Jean Williams is an expert facilitator with Insight Experience, a Boston-based firm delivering contextually rich business simulations and learning experiences to accelerate and integrate leadership, business acumen, and strategy execution.