Sorry, I’m too busy

Last week in the UK, it was half-term for most schools, providing many parents the opportunity to take some time off work to spend it with their families.  Along with the reduced traffic on the roads, came reduced traffic over email and phones, giving a sense of being, well, quieter than normal. As a result of this (down) shifting of gears, a strange thing happened: we got a lot more done. As opposed to a typical week, we found that we spent more time on what really mattered, rather than reacting to various emails and unexpected events as they happened. Not only did we get more done, we ended the week less tired than we normally do, meaning we were able to give more of ourselves to our leisure time at the weekend. We could get used to this.

Our observation of the effect of a week of reduced intensity at work sheds light on an important dynamic in most workplaces, especially in larger businesses: most people are simply too busy.

The Signal and the Noise

A leader’s role can be distilled into three core elements: setting strategy and direction; building the organisational capability and culture to execute the strategy; and removing the barriers and interference to execution. Everything else is noise. However, if you honestly assess how much time you spend on these activities, as a proportion of the total time available, you may be surprised how much your focus on these areas is crowded out by urgent or familiar, but less important, tasks.  The hidden truth behind this role description is that to fulfil any or all of these roles, a leader must have a clear head, time to think and the space to listen and connect with colleagues. How much of the time does that apply to you?

Three things tend to get in the way:

  1. Continuing doing what has made us successful in the past. This is most reliably manifested as senior leaders being pulled into problem-solving and detailed tasks that really should be done by others. It’s also the source of a leader micro-managing their subordinates. It’s easy to find comfort in familiar tasks, but the paradox within promotion is that, despite all the personal validation that promotion provides, it is the moment when it is necessary to re-learn a new set of skills to be successful in the new role. The book ‘The Leadership Pipeline’ does an excellent job at bringing this under-appreciated line of thinking to life and is a must-read for anyone wanting to better understand successful career and personal progression.
  2. The urgent taking priority over the important. Have you ever got to the end of a long, busy day and lamented that you never got around to the really important things? Most of us do, but this is a sure sign that the tasks are in control of you, as opposed to the other way around. If you start your day responding to emails then you are falling prey to this.
  3. Spending more time ‘weighing’ than ‘feeding’ the pig. Today’s data-rich environment provides leaders an unprecedented ability to know what is going on in all corners of their organisation. This is not necessarily a good thing as leaders can become weighed down by the volume of KPIs and the metrics that support them, with internal industries existing to feed this insatiable appetite for data – all diverting precious time and attention away from actually doing business.

Taking Back Control

For some leaders, there is a decisive moment where they decide to take back control of the distractions and past behaviours that get in the way of fulfilling the role they have today. One leader we work with has stopped using a laptop, reasoning that if there is anything that needs him to open a laptop, he probably shouldn’t be doing it. Another leader has banned emails (which previously had been governing her life) telling colleagues that if they needed anything from her, they should speak to her directly. Not only has her time been noticeably freed up, she is also connecting much more with her team and colleagues.

Yet, how many leaders do you know who are always so busy it has become a habit, almost a trademark? When asked how they are, the answer will almost always contain the phrase “really busy, thanks”. If you manage to get any time in their diaries, they will usually be running late, have less time available than planned and are distracted when with you. On some days, perhaps this is you.

In praise of Lazy Leaders

How a leader behaves comes down to mindset – beliefs about how they see the role; what habits of thinking and behaviour are in charge; and what assumptions they are making about what will make them successful – not conscious thought.  The mindset of most leaders can be identified as being in one of three distinct camps:

A specific business context can favour a particular style and, whilst all three styles can get results and there are pros and cons for each, there is an important truth in this categorisation that you may have spotted already.

The characteristics of a truly effective leader and a lazy one are indivisible and yet it is usually the skills of the other two types that led the leader to be promoted to the position they are in. The unavoidable conclusion being that, in order to be a truly effective leader, it is necessary to nurture a mindset of laziness. The more time you can spend not doing, but thinking; not speaking but listening; and not proving your worth but building it in others, the better leader you will be and the better performing your organisation.

‘Available’ is not a relationship status*

If the CEO is the busiest person in the organisation, something is wrong. Many organisations work on a perverse hierarchy of busy-ness, where the more senior you become, the busier you get. This is profoundly limiting for an organisation and deeply unempowering for its employees. If your company engagement scores are low, this is where to start looking for the root cause.

If a leader is to fulfil their role effectively, they should be one of the least busy people around, instead devoting their time to thinking, listening and connecting. It’s helpful to think in terms of how ‘available’ you are as a leader – your availability to others (i.e. your ability to listen, understand and coach your team through challenges), your availability to serendipity and creative thought (after all, the best ideas often come when you are not paying attention) and your availability to feedback, learning and growing as a leader. These are all foundational attributes to successful leadership and senior levels but are seldom considered nor talked about.

Creating Leadership Space

In order to improve your availability, you must first create space in your day and in your mind. Create a policy where you will accept no scheduled meetings on a certain day or, unplug from your phone and computer for a few hours to create the space to think. Limit your reaction to alerts on your smartphone (better still, turn them off) – in short find ways to generate sovereignty over your time. If you do not create space for yourself, you will find it absent in those you lead.

So, as the children return to school and the traffic builds up again, don’t lose the benefit that the break in the clouds created for that short moment.

“What is this life, if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?” (from Leisure by William Henry Davies)

(* as heard in one of our leadership sessions)


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