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The Future Can Wait for Now. But, Can It? | 3 Actions Leaders Can Take to Provide Stability and Promote Change

March 31, 2020 Paula Butte
Paolo Aguilar

When was the last time you took 30 minutes to stop and think about something beyond the near term?

With the increasingly dire impacts of COVID-19, we’re all focusing day to day, or even minute by minute. We’re making critical decisions quickly, often without deep thinking. Although we feel like we need to react quickly, are we making thoughtful decisions that have long-term impact? Are we setting aside any time to focus on the long-term strategic issues facing our companies?

The ability to think strategically, and not just operationally, is a vital one for leaders. And in uncertain and evolving times like these, strategic thinking can help us transcend chaos and enable us to lead our teams and organizations to success.

As a coach to Fortune 500 executives, I’m regularly asked to help newly promoted C-suite leaders to become “more strategic and less operational.” Here’s what these new leaders often say to me: “Yes, I know it’s important, but I have to think fast. I have little or no time to focus on the long term.”

But recently, one of my clients, Morgan, had a breakthrough moment and changed her behavior in ways that truly multiplied her impact as a leader.

Her story is important, and I believe it can serve as a helpful example for executives looking to clarify their leadership styles in this critical moment.

Here’s Morgan’s Story:

Last December, Morgan was flying high. She’d just been promoted from COO to CEO of a complex healthcare supply company. One of her first objectives was to complete a three-year plan. She was about to leave on a previously planned, two-week vacation to Italy, so she sat down to put her plan to paper before she left for Europe.

Her first instinct was to fall back on what she knew. Over a single weekend she developed a lengthy, highly detailed document with multiple objectives and tactics. She sent it to me for my initial reaction. This strategy document was difficult (and exhausting!) to follow—and I let her know that.

When she returned from her trip, she called me and excitedly shared her news. While she was away, she had a true aha moment about how she should lead.

Each day, she spent a short amount of time just thinking about the future of her company. Then, without the support of a laptop, she started drawing pictures, identifying key elements, and figuring out how they could integrate. This ideation time proved to be truly invaluable. When Morgan returned to the US, she was able to create an elegantly simple, compelling transformation plan that delighted her board and inspired her employees.

This experience changed the way Morgan ideates and communicates her vision. She also understood that we can’t rely on vacation time or time away from the office in order to incorporate strategic, bigger-picture thinking into our roles.

Here’s what she said to me when she returned from her trip: “I need to continue what I started in Italy. I know I can’t rely on ‘away time.’ So, I’ll work at home one day a week. I’ll intentionally slow down my thinking and examine my decision-making. I’ll make the time to regularly review and evolve my transformation plan. I commit to doing this for my company and my employees.”

As COVID-19 casts a longer and longer shadow, most of us are working from home every day of the week. But, we will likely still be distracted by urgent, short-term things demanding our attention.

Now, more than ever, it is important for every leader to commit to practices that will help them leave the tactical and operational behind, and embrace big-picture, strategic thinking. In fact, by not taking the time to think and by being seduced by activity traps, we’re endangering the future of our companies and our most valuable asset—our employees.

Here are three strategic actions leaders can take to provide stability and promote change at their organizations:

1. Turn off, tune out, tune in.

In addition to blocking time in your calendar, turn away from all technology when you take time to think and prepare. In today’s reality of Zoom meetings, conference calls, and text messaging, this is a bigger challenge than ever.

2. Slow down and examine your thinking.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes how decision makers often rely too much on instinct (System 1 thinking) and too little on logical, deliberate thinking (System 2 thinking). System 1 is automatic and intuitive fast thinking, and when you rely on System 1, you are not using your IQ points. What a wasted opportunity.

Ask these questions to engage your System 2, and think deliberately about your choices:

  • Do I have a bias to action? Am I excessively optimistic? Am I overconfident about my skills?
  • Do I overvalue immediate rewards and undervalue long-term gains?
  • Is my judgment clouded by not listening to dissenting opinions or swayed by groupthink?
  • Is my level of risk aversion helpful or hurtful?
  • What’s my attachment to the status quo?

3. Manage activity traps.

Now that you’ve planned for the future, it’s time to avoid being “seduced” by activities that feel great (even productive!) in the short term, but don’t link clearly to future priorities. Regularly review your calendar to focus on where you can add value to stay ahead of the competition.

Leaders, can you afford to be too busy to think about the future? With these practices, you can act with purpose to reclaim your time, manage your thinking, and create the future. (Oh, and feel a little less anxious too!)

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