#575       Innovative Leader     Volume 12, Number 4                      April 2003

A Time for Leadership
by Alex Hiam

Alex 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.

What gives?

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.

Time management 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 can.

For instance, 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.

Dick Cipoletti 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 time-management issues.

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!)

The solution?

Engage employees 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.

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