Volume 12, Number 4
Time for Leadership
Hiam offers training services and products (www.alexhiam.com).
He is the author of Making
Horses Drink (Entrepreneur Press, La Jolla CA, 2002) and Motivational Management (AMACOM, New York NY, 2002).
How can you get
from point A to point B faster? If you are driving, you could try
a faster car or a bigger road. These are obvious (although
somewhat costly) solutions. And the interesting thing is that they
do not work.
In fact, all the
“obvious” ways to save time tend not to work. As cars and
roads improve, our commute times are growing, not shrinking. (The
U.S. Dept. of Transportation found some years ago that commute
time is almost constant no matter what resources are thrown at
it.) Same problem in the office, where as we add e-mail,
palm-sized electronic datebooks, video conferencing and other
tools to our work routines, we find we are working longer hours and generating ever-bigger to-do lists and piles of
paper. Once again, the obvious solutions have paradoxically
increased the pressure on our time and reduced our efficiency
instead of improving things.
You can’t make
time stop, no matter how hard you try to force it or how much new
technology you throw at it. It’s like the old saying about
forcing the horse to drink. The harder you pull on the reins, the
harder it pulls back. Time is a powerful horse, and we must ride
it, willing or not.
Experts tell me
there are many ways to ride a horse, and most of them are wrong.
Amateur riders find themselves bumping and sliding around, setting
up contrary motions that make the ride terribly uncomfortable and
waste a lot of energy. That is a pretty good metaphor for how most
of wrestle with time, especially at work. And this problem is most
acute for workplace leaders, who not only need to manage their own
time well but also need to make sure their employees or team mates
are efficient and effective. Time seems to be the thing that every
leader values most and has the least of. Time
is leadership’s most limited resource.
expert, Dick Cipoletti, and I have been talking about this problem
and what to do about it, and his advice seems to fall into the
category of learning to ride the horse more easily and naturally,
rather than trying to force it to go faster or farther than it
business leaders are plagued by interruptions.
They receive hundreds of calls and e-mails each day and employees
are often at their door seeking advice or assistance. When asked,
these time-pressured managers can’t even recall where the time
went. The day seems to slip by as they put out time fires, until
whatever they might have wanted to do is long since forgotten. A
simple trick can improve the situation: Write down your one most
important goal for the day, then work on it first thing in the
morning before allowing interruptions. (Schedule visitors to come
back at the end of this focused work period if need be.) If the
leader clocks an hour or two of focused work on his or her key
project or problem, then the rest of the day can be given over to
answering questions and helping others be productive without that
panicked feeling that you aren’t doing what you need to.
also emphasizes the importance of understanding your own
personality and how it affects your leadership time challenge.
People who are more creative than organized tend to find that
their days are out of control and they are viewed as a source of
chaos by their employees. For them, the challenge is to help
employees define clear goals and set the structure needed to
follow through on good ideas. They need to learn to respect other
peoples’ need for stability and sequential work plans and to
avoid interrupting them unless truly necessary.
People who are
highly organized and like plenty of structure tend to have good
systems and plans and to feel more in control of their time. For
them the challenge is to learn to loosen their grip on the reins
and let their employees have more flexibility and take more
initiative. These are very different paths to a higher level of
productivity in the workplace because of the differences in
leadership personalities. The old saying that you must know yourself before trying to lead others is especially relevant to
In my work on
leadership, I often find myself helping leaders learn how to use
participative goal-setting and decision-making more effectively.
This area of leadership has a lot of impact on time and vice
versa. If you have good intentions, but lack specific skills or
tools, your efforts to include employee participation in a
decision or plan will waste a lot of time on hot air and will
produce an inefficient, time-wasting plan. But simply taking
control back and “forcing” your decision on the group won’t
work either—you will lack the support needed for self-motivated
performances. By forcing a fast decision, you are insuring lower
productivity and a great deal more lost time in the implementation
phase. (You truly can’t make the horse drink, no matter which
end of it you try to force that water into!)
intelligently in the development of a knowledge base about the
decision. Ask them to come up with a list of important
information, and to share the responsibility for gathering it and
sharing it with the group. At your next participatory meeting,
once the information is presented, lead the group in a
brainstorming session to develop as many plausible options or
choices as possible. Here is where the power of the group comes to
the fore, because more information and ideas will come up than you
were originally aware of.
Finally, ask for
opinions on what to do in a free-wheeling, honest discussion with
your group. Then tell them you will consider their input, thank
them for their help, and go off somewhere quiet to decide what is
best. In the end, you are
the leader, and you need to make the decision and take the rap for
it, so participation does not have to mean a vote for the most
popular option. You can override the group’s suggestions, but
you will owe them a clear explanation of your thinking if you do.
Either way, when you use this high-structure approach to
participatory decision-making you will find that time is on your
side rather than against you. You’ll feel more in control of the
process, and the little extra time you give the process will
reward you with a higher quality plan that your employees are
eager to implement quickly and well.