Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Living in the World of Fast and Faster

Routinely now, executives find themselves being pushed to make decisions before they are ready. With people lined up outside their offices wanting to share their problems, thoughtful decision making may feel like a thing of the past. Working with limited information and often unrealistic time frames, many executives skip the important stages of inquiry and problem definition, and instead charge forward into making a decision and then figuring out implementation plans.

As I ponder this recurring pattern, I am reminded of two comments by Peter Drucker in his article, “What is Our Business?” in the June 2001 issue of Executive Excellence magazine. First, he noted that “The executive’s time tends to belong to everybody else.” Second, “Executives are forced to keep ‘operating’ unless they take positive action to change the reality in which they live.” Coming to an understanding that when you become an executive everybody and anybody can move in on your time and eventually does is not an easy lesson. Furthermore, it is common as an executive to experience times when the flow of events around us supersedes the priorities we hold. Our challenge then and now is to continue to define what is most important in spite of this flow, and to carve out time for in-depth thought and consideration.

Over the last month, two experiences have made me do a lot of thinking. The first went as follows. An executive I have worked with on a one to one basis for a number of years met me in his office one cloudy afternoon, and stated “I am sorry that I had to reschedule this meeting so many times over the last couple of weeks. Even today, I really do not have the time for this level of work.”

I responded by saying, “We have two hours set aside for this meeting. You can use as little or as much of the two hours as you would like. You are in charge of the time. So, how are things going in your world?”

One hour and fifteen minutes later, he paused in his sharing. I then offered a summary analysis of what he shared, including the implications related to their current strategic plan and a variety of next steps that could be taken. We then discussed these next steps for about thirty minutes. During the last ten minutes, I checked on his health, his family and what he was reading. Just before we scheduled our next time to visit, he paused and said, “I don’t give myself permission to do this kind of in-depth reflection and thinking too often. This was very helpful. It was good to figure some things out and to share them with someone else. I needed that.”

“It was a pleasure to listen,” I said. “I look forward to our next meeting.”

In a world of fast and faster, having a scheduled time to reflect, share and think deeply is vital to the success of an executive. It allows us to take our minds off of instant operational decision-making and return to more productive strategic level thinking. As I often remind participants in our From Vision to Action Leadership Training, successful leaders work more on the business than in the business.

The critical element to this level of sharing is having someone who understands and can truly listen. This is not having an individual sit across the table from us with ears that can receive vibrations through the air and recognize them as words. This is someone who proactively listens to understand, tracks the conversation over time, and respects what is being shared. I think of this as in-depth strategic listening.

In this unique interaction, we help people to step back from the micro issues so they can comprehend the macro or strategic issues. We offer, when appropriate, constructive feedback or experienced perspective that challenges the individual to re-examine or re-think what is happening. Finally, we focus on accelerating the learning in an organized manner. The result of this in-depth strategic listening is that an executive feels re-energized, clear, and confident of what to do next.

From experiences of this nature, I have come to recognize that the first key to being a successful executive is to build time into our schedules for this level of sharing. The second key is to give ourselves permission to use the time once it has been scheduled. The third key is to trust our gut when it comes to decision-making.

The second experience that has made me do a lot of thinking happened recently. Once we were seated around the small conference table in his office, he shared, “I did not sleep well last night. I woke up around 2:30 am and started pacing in our bedroom. My wife told me to take the dog and go down stairs.”

This is something that I hear on a regular basis from executives right now. Waking up in the night is a common problem. Given how full their lives are with back to back meetings, I believe that the mind will wake up the body in the middle of the night to do some thinking through of certain issues because in the quiet dark of night there are no new inputs and there is ample time and space to process all that has been received.

“What were you thinking about at 2:30 am?”, I asked.

“We are not making the right decision when it comes to hiring this new person,” he explained. “They can do the job as it is defined today but I don’t think they are well suited given the strategic direction we are taking. We need to think more toward the future.”

“What does your gut tell you to do?”, I inquired.

“We need to slow down and be more thoughtful. This will upset some people but it is necessary,” he said.

“The research by Jim Collins,” I explained, “notes that ‘who questions come before what decisions.’ It is a ‘rigorous discipline, consistently applied.’ So, let’s think about how to get from where you are right now to where you want to be given this situation.”

The insight for him was to trust his gut. The key for me as an executive coach was to respect this level of intuition. When we combine strategic listening with a respect for an individual’s intuition, we create a power opportunity for all involved to gain new perspectives, understanding, and clarity. And in the world of fast and faster, this is critical to short and long term success.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates # 319 - 643 - 2257

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