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Managing a CEO’s Scarcest Resource—Time

Most CEOs have a bias toward action, says Daniel Patrick Forrester, author of Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking in Your Organization. “This instinct may not always serve their organizations well. Many leaders say they want results, yet what they’re actually saying is that they want speed. But without time for reflection, they just get to a faulty destination that much faster.

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Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent, chairman of the U.S.-China Business Council, wanted to make a good impression on Chinese President Hu Jintao: “In honor of this very historic moment, I would like to propose a toast to President Hu and also to his esteemed delegation…Kanpai!” Kent said. The toast elicited embarrassed laughter from the assembled crowd.

Kent had succeeded in toasting the Chinese president—in Japanese. It was an easy mistake to make. The phrase is written with the same Chinese characters in both languages, but the toast he intended—the equivalent of “Cheers!”— is “Ganbei,” (gahn-BAY) in Chinese; in Japanese, it is “Kanpai” (kahn-PIE).

Could Kent have avoided the gaffe by pausing to reflect on his pronunciation? No one can know for sure, says Kenneth G. Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thorton China Center at the Brookings Institution, who attended the meeting. “Anytime you are interacting with someone or making an introduction, it’s always worthwhile to take the time to make sure the key terms you are going to use are pronounced correctly,” he says.

Lieberthal counsels American CEOs to be especially patient when speaking with Chinese CEOs. This can be a real problem because the Chinese CEO will often say something and then pause while they reflect on the next thing they want to say. The length of the pause can be unnerving. “Americans detest pauses; we want to fill up the silence,” Lieberthal notes, adding that the frequently the most interesting part of the statement will come after the pause. But American CEOs who regard the pause just as an opportunity to fill the silence will not have the benefit of the full response.

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There

Most CEOs have a bias toward action, says Daniel Patrick Forrester, author of Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking in Your Organization. “This instinct may not always serve their organizations well. Many leaders say they want results, yet what they’re actually saying is that they want speed. But without time for reflection, they just get to a faulty destination that much faster.”

Reflection can be a powerful action. Many CEOs know that they often get their best ideas when they are not obviously working—they may be taking a shower, swimming, walking on the treadmill, reading for pleasure, falling asleep, or dreaming. Seizing a minute or an hour to reflect not only brings invaluable opportunities for learning, it invites leaders to consider what really matters and what is most significant to the organizations they lead. Inspiration can come in many forms, but it can’t be forced or scheduled.

Defend Time to Think

The first thing CEOs must do is defend their time to think. “The best strategy is to schedule two hours and then hide,” says high-tech business veteran Patty Azzarello, CEO and founder of Azzarello Group and former CEO of Euclid Software. It doesn’t work without the hiding part, because the activity knows where to find you.” Start with a one-off for two hours. Turn off the Blackberry, she says, adding that “there are very few emergencies that will materially be different two hours from now. Once you see that you can, indeed, grab two hours and the world doesn’t come to an end, try it once a week.”

CEOs get frustrated by the inability of their direct reports to think and work strategically, but CEOs are often the worst offenders. If CEOs want suggestions to up their game, they must set up a culture that recognizes the priority of reflection and reward its importance. “My greatest value to the company is my ability to stand back and see the big picture,” says Gary Hirschberg, chairman, president and CE-Yo, as he calls his post on the company website, of yogurt-maker Stonyfield Farm, in Londonderry, N.H. “Success depends on me not being encumbered by the crucial things that on a day-to-day basis other people can do better than I can.”

Hirschberg encourages this distancing perspective for himself and his team in a number of ways. For example, he welcomes speaking engagements. It’s not just an opportunity to tell the company’s story; it gets Hirschberg away from the office to think about issues from the audience’s point of view. “I rarely return from a speaking engagement without some improved clarity,” Hirschberg says. Stonyfield Farm also encourages associates and managers to take two-week vacations. One week is not enough, because it takes one week for most people to really slow down and recover from the carryover of business detail that spills into any vacation. In addition, a Stonyfield team member with five years on the job can get two months of paid leave to reflect. “It’s my way of saying, if you can get some distance from this place and get a fresh perspective, you’re more valuable to the company,” Hirschberg says.

It’s not always easy to get out of the office. Here’s how one CEO does it.

Making sure everyone is on the same page is difficult when a company has one CEO. See how a company with three CEOs does it.

Admiral Thad Allen was commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard when the Deepwater Horizon exploded and President Obama directed him to lead the clean-up of the world’s largest oil spill. He retired from the Coast Guard last June 30, but continued to lead the effort until Oct. 1. A lifetime of commitment to reflection allowed Allen to periodically escape the desperation of official Washington demanding that he do something, anything, to stop the oil bleeding into the Gulf of Mexico. Allen found that helicopter rides, cocooned in the silence of ear guards, were particularly conducive to helping him frame the crisis in ways that could elicit responses that were less reactive and more productive.

No matter the urgency, there are always ways to carve out time to get a bit of distance from the day-to-day demands of the job. When he was commandant, Allen often rode a bike to work, using the 45-minute each-way trip to reflect on the Coast Guard’s mission. “Great leaders are great learners,” he says. “If you don’t believe that, then you’ll never be able to create the priorities and space to detach from what’s beating on you.” Now retired, Allen is taking a year or so to reflect on what to do next, which is the fundamental question for every leader. To help guide him in this quest, Allen is engaged in three activities designed to provide stimulation, inspiration, and challenge: he is a part-time senior fellow at the Rand Corporation, he’s teaching a course at George Washington University, and is giving speeches.

It’s About Time

The most difficult task for CEOs is to be strategic about their time, says Tig Gilliam, CEO of Swiss-owned Adecco USA, a $5 billion temporary staffing business. “It’s not easy to do when everyone clamors for some of it.”

To make time devoted to meetings most effective, Gilliam recommends what he calls “Tactical Mondays, Strategic Fridays.” He starts each week by getting all the tactical issues on the table: the projects, status updates, budget and staffing issues, etc. By surfacing the issues early in the week, Gilliam and his team have a better picture of what needs to be tackled in the next five days. On Fridays, he makes it a point to protect some time so he can step back and think more broadly about long-term issues. Adecco USA has 13 businesses, so Gilliam has 13 P&L owners reporting to him. Five or six times a year, the senior management team meets for a two-day session which mirrors his Friday practice. One day focuses on tactical operational issues; the other looks at longer-term issues such as marketplace evolution, competitors, and talent development.

Ten Proven Reflection Tips

I don’t know of a single CEO who doesn’t desire more time to reflect. Most have tried and given up in frustration as the tyrant of the present erodes whatever time they have set aside. But some CEOs have figured out how to protect the scarcest resource and create a practice that increases opportunities for reflective thinking. Not all of these will be suitable for every organization, but all of them have been proven to be effective in the right circumstances. Here are ten of the best CEO reflection tips that you can try in your organization.

  1. Personal Retreat. The only way some CEOs get the mental space to do the strategic thinking that is essential in a 24×7 world, is to block out the time well in advance. Bill Gates pioneered this practice with his celebrated Think Weeks, but it’s not realistic for most CEOs to take such time. Ann Herrmann-Nehdi, CEO of Herrmann International, a company based in Lake Lure, N.C., that trains participants “in the ability to think and act outside of your preferred thinking style.” Apparently following the company’s advice, she asks for a week every year, knowing that it will be chipped away at both ends. “I’m satisfied if I end up with two or three solid days,” she says. For Herrmann-Nehdi it has to be unstructured time. “Most of my time is so highly structured, I crave an unstructured retreat.” That means she hasn’t made a plan, booked a resort, and doesn’t have to rush to catch a plane. She prefers to point the car and drive somewhere.
  2. Join a CEO Group. One a month, Hermann-Nehdi also makes a point to visit a Vistage CEO Monthly Group. This is her one day to work “on” the business rather than “in” with fellow CEOs who are committed to deep thinking about issues all CEOs confront. “My group is four-hour drive each way, which some people think is crazy, but as beneficial as the group is, the drive is often the most powerful part of the day. Just knowing I have one day a month to think about the longer term creates a discipline that’s good for the organization.”
  3. Time to Wonder. Jeff Hoffman, former CEO of Chicago-based Enable Holdings and now founder and partner in ColorJar, a venture accelerator, and CEO of Black Sky Entertainment, doesn’t have to go on retreat to get the daily unstructured periods he calls “time to wonder.” The first thing he does is to turn off email. “As soon as you go into the vortex of email, you are working on the agenda of other people,” he says. During these periods, Hoffman may read the newspaper or visit Google or Yahoo and see what the most common search terms are. Then he actively wonders about what any of it means. Keeping a journal of this “info sponging” helps Hoffman connect the dots. “When I give my mind the freedom to wander, I often get insights I can bring back to the business,” Hoffman says.
  4. Minute of Silence. At Sounds True, a self-help multimedia publishing company in Lake Lure, N.C., all meetings start with an untimed minute of silence to reinforce the shared sense of being quiet so participants can be present for the matter at hand, according to CEO and founder Tami Simon. “Meetings that start by taking a minute, are more effective because participants can really focus on being fully present in the room, not the room where they just came from, or the room where they are going,” she says.
  5. Five Percent Think Time. At Detroit-based ePrize, founder and chairman Josh Linkner encourages everyone, and not just the occupants of the C-suite, but the employees closest to customers to schedule five percent think time. “If someone works 40 hours per week attacking their to-do list, they would have a certain level of productivity,” Linkner suggests, “but if they devoted two hours per week to just think, they would be equally or more productive, plus they would occasionally come up with a brilliant idea. I want to create a greenhouse for creativity.”
  6. Don’t Rush Back from Conferences. Robert J. DiQuollo, president of Madison, N.J.-based Brinton Eaton, a 17-person high-net-worth investment adviser with $625 million under management, makes it a practice at least once a quarter to attend a professional conference. But instead of rushing home at the conclusion, he takes an extra day so he can synthesize the info and apply the lessons learned.
  7. Schedule Recurring Meetings a Month In Advance. Jeff Gitterman, CEO of Gitterman & Associates Wealth Management and Beyond Success consulting in Iselin, N.J., and author of Beyond Success: Redefining the Meaning of Prosperity, schedules all his recurring meetings at least a month in advance. One immediate benefit is that being unprepared for a meeting becomes unacceptable. But the bigger benefit is that all that lead time encourages meeting participants to actually reflect on the issues and thereby increases the ROI of the meeting, according to Gitterman.
  8. No Email Fridays. Scott Dockter, CEO of PBD, an worldwide inventory management and shipping company based in Atlanta, tried a bold experiment to get employees to shift their fundamental relationship with electronic communications, at least when it came to talking with each other. Obviously, if a client emailed a question, it’s answered, but for routine internal communications employees are encouraged to talk face-to-face or pick up the phone and have an actual conversation. Dockter believes the quality of the communication benefits from employees taking the time to talk and converse.
  9. Defend Vacations. “When I’m on vacation, I expect my people not to call me unless it’s an absolute emergency,” says Frederick J. Krebs, president of the Association of Corporate Counsel, with nearly 25,000 in-house lawyers in more than 70 countries as members. “By the same token, I will not interrupt someone’s vacation with phone calls.” Krebs wants people to come back from vacations with open minds and fresh perspectives, and they can’t do that if one foot is still back in the office.
  10. Get a Hobby. It doesn’t really matter what it is, but Krebs thinks that CEOs enlarge their perspectives not only by having a hobby but by practicing it. Krebs takes his camera everywhere and when he goes to client meetings or conferences, he tries to schedule an extra afternoon to take pictures. “The important thing is for CEOs to be able to focus on something other than the day-to-day details of running the business,” he says. “Fresh thinking requires fresh environments.”

Reflections on Getting Out of The Office

Dory Wiley, president and CEO of Dallas-based Commerce Street Capital, says it’s easy to deal with the issues of the moment and to react to whatever people bring you. The solution is simple. Leave the office. “If you’re in the office, every CEO will prioritize customer service or employee needs above their own,” he says. So if you’re serious about getting time for reflection, get out of the office. In the meantime, here are a few things to try:

  • Work on the things that are your biggest problems first. The longer you put them off, the harder they’ll get.
  • Question everything. Are we in the right business? Yes, that’s what you pay consultants for, but if the CEO can ask those questions, it represents free competitive advantage.
  • Reflect when your head is most clear and available. For Wiley, that’s in the morning.
  • Create alone time. Alone time doesn’t happen by accident. It must be created.
  • Encourage Reflection. If employees are not thinking but just doing tasks, you’re probably overpaying them.
  • Turn Reflection into Action. The competitive advantage is not the reflection, but the action.

Same Page Sessions

Once they grow to a certain size, organizations have a huge challenge ensuring that employees agree on key values and objectives. The challenge is complicated when a company has not just one CEO, but three, as does Kahler Slater, a Milwaukee-based architecture and design company with six offices. The company attacks the challenge with twice-a-month meetings called “Same Page” sessions. These sessions are generally attended by the three CEOs of the company and their direct reports. In addition, anyone in the company can get time on the agenda just by asking. Here’s an agenda from late December:

  • Update on 2011 budget
  • Farewell gift to retiring partner
  • Drill down in results of the Best Places to Work (Kahler Slater is a seven-time winner) to see what lessons can be drawn for continuous improvement
  • Design of new office space
  • Insurance broker
  • Update on selected client engagements
  • Briefing from director of client services on unsuccessful pitch and what the company could learn

In addition, once a year, the three CEOs (or the “3EOs, as they are referred to) take their Same Page Session offsite for a day, according to Jill Morin, one of the 3EOs. “Just a change in venue lets us think differently and, just as important, to listen to each other differently, than we do in the office,” Morin says. At the most recent such off-site, the 3EOs worked on some feedback from associates that while the mission and objectives of Kahler Slater were clear, the tangible vision (what the company will be like when it actually achieves those objectives) were less lucid. The 3EOs went through an exercise to imagine that it was 2020 and to ask questions such as, what would Kahler Slater be like? What kind of work would it be doing? Whom would it be serving with this work? In silence, the three partners wrote down their hopes and visions. They were gratified to find how consistent the results were. They came back with a statement that would later be further massaged by the team. It was the kind of deep, reflective work that was all but impossible to do individually or, in a busy office, even collectively.

Note: Upcoming issues of Chief Executive will include Essentials columns on working effectivelywith your CIO, CMO, and human resources department, as well as when and how to blog.

About John Kador