We begin today with an important leadership concept that I believe should become a valuable part of every leader’s weekly routine.
David Leonhardt, a Pulitzer prize winning op ed or opinion columnist for the New York Times in their Washington bureau, wrote an interesting column on Tuesday about the importance of taking time to think about the strategic aspects of your job.
He began with a great example. When George Shultz was Secretary of State in the 1980s for Ronald Reagan, he set aside one hour each week for reflection on his goals and objectives. He would close the door to his office and sit down with a pad of paper and pen. He told his secretary no telephone calls or other interruptions unless two people called:
“My wife or the President,” Mr. Shultz, now 96, said it was the only way he could find the time to think about the strategic aspects of his job, otherwise, he would be pulled into the day-to-day, moment-to-moment, tactical issues and never be able to focus on the larger issues of national interest.
Behavioral economist Richard Thaler says that constant activity isn’t an enjoyable or productive way to live.
Mr. Leonhardt posits that these days the constant frenetic pace is a very tempting way to live. In fact, he wrote, it can be hard to live any other way. “We carry super computers in our pockets and place them next to us as we sleep”, Mr. Leonhardt writes. “They are always there, with a new status update to be read, a new photograph to be taken, a new sports score or Trump outrage to be checked.”
Now, here is a point that resonated with me. Even before there were such things as smartphones, this country’s professional culture had come to venerate freneticism. It is fairly common now to hear people commit what he calls the humble brag, about how busy they are.
Quoting Mr. Leonhardt, “…the saddest version, and I’ve heard it more than once, is the story of people who send work emails on their wedding day, or from the hospital room where their child is born — and are proud of it.”
Leonhardt argues, and I agree, that executives — leaders — need some of Secretary Shultz’s reflection time. This sacred and protected hour is the route to meaningful ideas in almost any aspect of our lives: personal relationships, academic papers, policy solutions, business strategies and career planning.
I also agree with Mr. Leonhardt that there is a logical connection between our lack of dedicated reflection and the fact that new business formation has declined over the last 15 years despite, or perhaps because of, the digital revolution.
Mr. Leonhardt practices what he writes, taking an hour each week for quiet reflection in his office, home study or during a solitary walk. He always keeps a pad and paper to capture his inspirations.
Leonhardt writes that our brains can be in either the “task positive” or “task negative” mode, but not both at once. Our brain and our performance benefit from spending time in each state.
There was no email when I married or when my sons were born but I am ashamed to report I could well have been that person, given my obsession to maintain constant contact with my work, who did indeed, stay in touch with the office on those important personal occassions. I was very good at what I did, and very successful, but I did not always enjoy the work as much as I would have liked. And I am absolutely convinced that I missed some of life’s great lessons and important family moments along the way.
By the way, Mr. Leonhardt says that when he enters that golden hour of reflection, he sets his phone to ring only if his wife calls. Said Mr. Leonhardt: “My boss can’t start a war so I am willing to ignore him for an hour.”
So, I urge you to take an hour each week to think strategically about your job and your career.
It is not an uncommon request in today’s job market. It goes something like this:
I have been doing this work for 10, 15 or 20 years. I am getting burned out. I think I am ready for a change. I want to start a new chapter in my life.
When I hear this refrain, believe me I understand. But it is easier said than done.
When executives say this, what they DO NOT say, is I want to start a new chapter in my life but I do not want to take a cut in pay or reduce my scope of responsibility or title — which is to say organization prestige.
In my many years of talent management experience, I have seen that dream, on those terms, realized perhaps by one in 10 attempts. The odds improve significantly when the executive is willing to make fundamental changes — to take a step back to remake their tool kit to rebuild a new portfolio of skills.
More often than not, when I hear that desire to turn the page for a new career option, what I really hear is more about being burned out than wanting to move into a new leadership role in a new industry segment.
For some it is about arranging a sabbatical. For others it is about a job change.
If this moment comes in your career, you must control your emotions and impulses and carefully plan a strategic response.
Today, the job market in industries like publishing, retail and healthcare is challenging. I know talented executives who have been job searching for nearly two years. I know talented successful executives finally give up and declare early retirement at age 55. Some have found teaching assignments or have built viable consultancies. But I have also known more than a few who have been forced to significantly scale back their lifestyle spending so as not to exhaust their savings.
There is not an executive I know who has, at one time or another in his or her career, felt exhaustion or enormous frustration. There are days that gong to work is an enormously depressing routine. Not to be a scold, but the reality is that these feelings are normal. They are part of life. Rare is the person who can say at retirement ‘I never had a down day in my career.’
Here is what I suggest. When those feelings occur, as they begin to build, take some time each week and think reflectively about your successes. Think about your strengths, your weaknesses and about those things in your job that you really love. Then ask yourself why? Why do you do what you do?
The truth is that most people who hit the burnout point in their careers are very capable of delivering additional value. They just need to take stock of why they do what they do. They need to evaluate their experience and skills and to remember their successes.
The truth is that hitting the wall of burn out does not mean you have to make a radical change. It probably means you need to remember how you got to where you are today. Our jobs are a lot like our marriages. There are good times and bad times. We just need to remember that, more often than not, we need to dance with the one that brung us to this point in our careers.
When you do hit the wall, don’t react. Think strategically. Retain a coach and work out a plan.
Some times those skills and experiences can open new doors. And other times we just need to reformat our thinking and look for a new opportunity.
Remember leaderships is based on trust. Trust requires truth. Without truth there is no trust.