“The supply of time is totally inelastic,” wrote Peter Drucker. “No matter how high the demand, the supply will not go up. There is no price for it and no marginal utility curve for it. Moreover, time is totally perishable and cannot be stored. Yesterday’s time is gone forever and will never come back. Time is, therefore, always in exceedingly short supply.”
Time is the universal constant. We all get the same amount and our success as leaders often comes down to how well we choose to use it. What we choose to prioritize and what we choose to ignore tells people what we care about. It influences the priorities of those around us and drives the performance of the team. Effective leadership always starts with evaluating how we spend our time.
I once had a manager who spent every Monday morning going through last week’s time charges. Instead of discussing plans for the week or tackling our biggest problems, we all got the third degree over how we charged our time. It’s safe to say that there wasn’t a lot of strategic initiative in that division.
I had another manager who spent her evenings reviewing each employee’s emails from the day before. We used to say that “Big Sister’s watching,” since each morning you’d get a critique on yesterday’s communications. You can imagine the wonders this did to build trust.
It’s easy to point out examples of how not to spend your time. We see those around us every day. And we’ve all had days where we look back and think, “What just happened? Where did my time go? Did I actually accomplish anything?”
Identifying the alternative is much more difficult. With our limited time, what’s the best way to spend it? The answer, in short, involves those things that leaders can do, that very few others can do as well. Unfortunately, these tend to be the very things we ignore in times of busyness.
Developing Long-term Vision and Strategy
“In order to carry a positive action we must develop here a positive vision.” — Dalai Lama
When you’re putting out fires each day, long-term strategy is one of the easiest things to defer. It’s that item on your to-do list that you always list, yet never seem to do. The fact that you write it down each day makes you feel better, even if you know that it’ll be the first thing you cut once the daily craziness begins.
Developing long-term vision and strategy is critical for the main reason that no one else is doing it. Literally, no one else on your team is going to do this. They all think it’s your job. If you don’t take it on, everyone else will continue to plod along on the current course, whether that leads them to success or obsolescence.
It’s difficult to overestimate the impact of a vision on your team’s motivation. When people have a clear vision of a better future, and a realistic path towards achieving it, they’ll bring their best selves to help you get there. If they believe that they’re working to preserve an undefined status quo, that’s about the time they start to mentally check out.
“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” — Winston Churchill
Communicating with your team is one of the easiest things for leaders to avoid. Especially if you’re addressing a problem, it’s not a fun conversation to have. It’s tempting to give people a pass just this once and hope it gets better.
The only problem with this logic is that it’s wrong. Problems don’t fix themselves; they only get worse with time. By not addressing it, you tell people the behavior’s acceptable. And again, if you don’t do it as the leader, no one else is going to take this on.
I heard somewhere that Attitudes + Behaviors = Culture. Overly simplified perhaps, but it captures the basic idea well. Feedback elevates both attitudes and behaviors. Positive feedback encourages people to repeat behaviors that work. Constructive discussions address problems and put people on a better course. And whenever people see you recognize their performance, attitudes will improve.
Recruiting and Hiring
“Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better. If you get the team right, chances are that they’ll get the ideas right.” — Ed Catmull
Hiring new people onto your team can be like performing an organ transplant. You can do all the background work to see if there’s a match, but you never know whether the body will ultimately accept or reject the new transplant. Sometimes smart, talented people just don’t work out. In most of these cases, the problem is due to a poor cultural fit.
As a leader, you need to hire people whose strengths balance the areas that you’re personally weak. You need to balance diverse personalities and strengths, with a solid cultural fit that will promote collaboration. The goal is to have enough friction to create sparks, but not burn everything down.
Recruiting and hiring then becomes an active process. Who do you need to contribute to your culture? What are the critical values they need to have? What diverse skill sets and perspectives do you need to add? As a leader, you’re able to set both the standards and the direction for hiring. The make-up of your team is too important to leave to anyone else.
Learning Something New
“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” — John F. Kennedy
All of us are works in progress. In a rapidly changing world, our biggest challenge is to stay relevant and effective. A commitment to continuous learning keeps leaders knowledgeable of new trends, technologies, and practices.
This builds from recognizing your own limitations. It involves staying open-minded in the face of new knowledge, actively seeking out challenging information, and being willing to change your mind in the face of new evidence. Another part is actively listening to those around you. There are few better ways to understand diverse perspectives, learn new things, and build trust than by actively listening to others.
Amidst daily issues and urgencies of the moment, spending time learning something new or researching a potential innovation can seem like a frivolity. Yet how you prioritize learning and improvement will influence your team’s approach to it as well. And the quickest path to irrelevance is when companies focus on today’s demands at the expense of the future.
Finding Ways to Add Value to Others
“Leadership is simple: add value to people everyday.” — Mike Krzyzewski
On my worst days, I look back and realize that I was too focused on myself and I failed to help anyone else. On my best days, I can look back and think of how my contribution made a positive difference to someone.
Great leaders have one common characteristic — they’re willing to confront the problems facing their people. How much we help others, regardless of our personal successes, will always be the measure of our leadership value.
The only way to do this is by making it a priority. The opportunities are there. They’re around you every day. Take the focus off yourself, step out of your comfort zone, and find a way to help out someone else. That, more than anything, defines a leader.