I enjoy exercising on a treadmill, even though I know that no matter how fast I go or how long I run, I will end up in the same place. At least I have the consolation of being more fit and healthy after my exercise. If only the same were true of the leadership treadmill. We run from the break of dawn until the stroke of midnight, instantly available to one and all. We are exhausted physically and mentally. We have taken no time to think strategically about the future, or even to reflect on the short term.
As a result, we are depleted—that is, less focused, less energetic, less decisive—as leaders. We have to get off the treadmill, or else we’ll be unable to see our priorities, facilitate results and enable the development of our people.
There are a variety of phenomena that have driven us to this state. Economic pressures, once cyclical, have been an ever-present part of business for at least the past decade. Meanwhile, technology has had an impact on the pace of our days. Cell phones and BlackBerrys have increased our mobility, but they also pressure us to respond to every little thing. I once heard a presentation about a phone system that can get a message to you by any device. I thought, Great, now we can have a corporate version of hide-and-seek! Whether we gain productivity or lose it depends on whether we use technology to enhance our lives or allow ourselves to be abused by it.
You know you’re stuck on the treadmill when “irritated” defines your attitude. Your work suffers. You rush through budget preparation, and must do it over when it doesn’t meet corporate guidelines. You have systems that never met business needs because requirements planning was given short shrift. Eventually, your people lose any sense of when a task is urgent, and they discount the importance of activities that never seem to be completed.
Time-pressured decisions (and the behavior that accompanies them) will erode your effectiveness and your sustainability as a leader. Yes, the world seems to demand a short-term focus, but at the same time, we are expected to deliver the results of long-term thinking.
Start Getting Somewhere
Your health, your peace of mind, maybe even your job are at stake—unless you get control of your life. When children are young, we discipline them with “time-outs” in the hope that they will reflect on their behavior and change their ways. We may need executive “time-outs” to gain the distance needed to rediscover or reevaluate what is important in our lives.
We rarely take time off for good behavior. But taking a long vacation, as much as it rejuvenates you, won’t keep you off the treadmill once you get back to the office. You need to give yourself regular breathers during the workweek to remain an effective leader. For instance:
- Learn to say no. You can even say no to your boss (diplomatically, of course). Explain impacts on time, cost and the established priorities that will have to be reordered if you address the latest demand. And let some things go; they may never be missed.
I remember a time when my job required me to lead my organization through a major change. The effort to keep everyone focused on getting results in this environment was intense. And I needed to be in the office to do it. But as a member of the executive team, I was expected to attend events that required travel or out-of-office time. After a fair amount of agonizing, I finally told my boss that I was going to limit the number of executive events I attended until the organizational change secured its own momentum. I missed out on some enjoyable events and on relationship-building opportunities, but visibly leading the organization through a difficult transition was the top priority.
- Establish quiet times. You should have one day a week without meetings, and you should ban cell phone calls or instant messaging during certain hours.
- Delegate. Figure out which decisions really need your personal engagement. Let someone else handle things that do not absolutely require your participation.
One way I was able to enjoy vacations was by appointing someone to sit in for me while I was gone. They had the authority to make decisions—and my commitment to live with those decisions. Not only was this great for an uninterrupted vacation, it was also a wonderful developmental tool for my staff.
- Telecommute. Try to work at home one day a week. You will be amazed by how much you can get accomplished without constant interruption, whether you’re cleaning up the stuff you never get to or preparing a difficult presentation. Obviously, you have to set rules about interruptions. (My assistant knew to call me if a customer wanted to reach me.) If there are no such rules, you may as well be in the office.
- Set an example. Close the 24-hour emergency room that instant communication enables. Tell your direct reports to use your cell phone number only for true emergencies. You may have to redefine what constitutes an emergency. Once, I pressed my boss for a quick approval because I hadn’t built into my plan sufficient time for him to evaluate my proposal. He told me, “Your lack of planning does not constitute an emergency for me.” I never forgot this.
Then, give your people the time off that you are trying to wrest for yourself. Don’t demand that they be always on or reward them on that basis. Your staff will emulate your behavior, because they will assume that what you do is what you value. Coach them in creating a similar environment among their own teams. Soon, everyone in your IT organization will be more productive, more responsive to business needs and enjoy a more balanced life.
Stay the Course
The next challenge will be to avoid going back to the behavior that caused the burnout. There will be the saboteurs—a customer, a boss or someone under you who likes to delegate decisions upward—who will want the Type A person back. When you’re tempted to revert to your fire-fighting ways, listen to these lines from Clint Black’s song “Haywire”: “Downloaded, overloaded—my computer knows where I am. World’s gone haywire, and the wire is getting long. Hanging on to nothing.com.” This will inspire you to stay the course.
Before retiring in 1999, Patricia Wallington was corporate vice president and CIO at Xerox. She is now president of CIO Associates in Sarasota, Fla. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.