Thanksgiving Think Week

Next month, my company Be Leadership celebrates its first birthday. In recognition of that, I’m stealing an idea from my former employer.

When I was at Microsoft, Bill Gates used to take time out each year for what he called Think Week, to get away from the day-to-day and think strategically about new concepts. For Bill and Microsoft, this week was about reading, learning about new technology and innovation, and getting caught up on recent research. What came out of these weeks were new ideas for the direction of the company.

As part of Be Leadership, I do lots of reading. I read more in this role than I have in any other; I feel I’m constantly learning about incredible innovations in leadership and business. But what I don’t do enough is step out of the day-to-day to focus on my longer term strategy and reflect on how I want my business to develop.

So next week – when many of my American clients and friends are on holiday celebrating Thanksgiving – I am having my own Think Week, where I will spend three and a half days reflecting on the past 12 months and then looking forward to 2016.

 

Day 1: Business Strategy

My Think Week will start with a look backward and then project forward to next year. I use a fantastic cloud-based accounting tool called Kashflow, so I have a good handle on my finances and P&L. But there are other questions I want to spend some time considering.

Looking back:

  • What are my overall financial results? How does this compare with my projections?
  • Who are my company’s clients? Where does my business come from?
  • How happy are my customers? How much impact am I having with the work I do? How can I tell?
  • How diverse are my company’s clients?
  • How diverse is the work I have done? Are these the areas I want to be focusing?
  • How do I spend my time? Is this in line with my desires and expectations?
  • What are my company’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats?

Looking forward:

  • How complete is my (primitive) business plan? Should I make it more robust?
  • What is my company’s unique value proposition? How clearly can I articulate that? Can I make this clearer?
  • What is my company’s mission? Purpose? Values?
  • Who would I include on my company’s Advisory Board? My personal Advisory Board? Are these the same? How should I be working with these people?
  • How can I get customer input on my work and my plans?
  • What are my business objectives for next year?

 

Day 2: Business Growth

Given the maturity of my business, I am spending a whole day this year focused on growth. If Be were at a different stage, I might choose to look strictly at customer satisfaction or zero in on marketing. If my organization were larger, I might focus on people management. As Be Leadership heads into its second year, I have a number of questions to consider around growth, relating to customers, marketing and business development.

At the end of Day 2, I have a call scheduled with my mentor of nearly 20 years, Holly. I work quite a bit on my own, so it’s important to me to have people I trust who ask good questions and challenge me. My friend and ex-colleague from Microsoft, Matthew, has offered to review some outputs from this week. And my fellow executive coach Sarah is meeting with me on Friday to check on what I’ve achieved. All of these check ins will keep me focused and accountable and help make the week a success.

Here are some questions I will answer on Day 2:

  • How do I define successful growth for 2016 and beyond?
  • What do my clients need from Be Leadership? Will this change in the future?
  • What are my customer channels? Are there new channels to consider?
  • How effectively does my website represent my company?
  • Are there resources I can develop that would help me more successfully market my business?
  • How effective is my customer tracking? How can I better support and communicate with my clients?
  • What partners do I need in 2016 to grow my business?
  • What other changes will I make in 2016 to support growth?

 

Day 3: Personal Growth

Day 3 is my last full day of Think Week, and I want to use this time to make some decisions about my personal involvement in Be Leadership and my own development next year. In 2015, I did work on my executive coaching practice and completed a certification with the NeuroLeadership Group. As I continue to invest in my skills next year, I need to consider where to focus. I also need to think about my overall career.

Here are some questions for Day 3:

  • What do I want to achieve with my learning and development in 2016?
  • Given this, where should I invest my development time and money?
  • What financial investments should I be making for my future (eg pension)?

 

Day 4: Reflection

On the final day of my Think Week, I will spend time reflecting on what I covered during the week and will have a coaching call with my colleague Sarah.

I’m energized by the thought of this work and spending my Thanksgiving week exploring these questions. And since it’s Thanksgiving, I want to say thank you to all of you who have supported Be Leadership and me personally this year. I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given, the people I have met and how much I have learned.

Would you or your organization benefit from a Think Week? What questions would you like to reflect on and answer?

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

The Tyranny of the Urgent

Yesterday I had a rare “free” day – one uninterrupted by meetings and appointments where I could spend the day at my desk really getting things done. When the day started, I thought about all the things I’d like to accomplish. The hours stretched out ahead of me, and I was excited about the possibilities. I had blog posts I wanted to write, a 2016 business plan to draft and some changes I hoped to make to my website. All were important, strategic projects to help grow my business and prepare for next year.

The day passed, and I was productive. But not with all of those important projects. Instead, I got sucked in by my to-do list, which was full of urgent tasks that I felt had to be done immediately. I filed expenses and sorted out the pile of paperwork that had gathered on my desk. I sent out some invoices. I responded to client queries and delivered some promised actions. I felt great about my progress, yet at the end of the day, I knew I had missed an opportunity.

In my work, I often coach leaders who are struggling with exactly this challenge: They have great strategic opportunities – ones which could be transformational for their business and for themselves personally – and they struggle, like me, to give them the right priority. They head into the office in the morning full of good intentions, only to find people at their door, emails in their inbox and messages on their mobile phones with real, urgent needs that stop them from making progress on longer term goals.

So what are we to do about this ongoing struggle? How do we get the right balance between the urgent and the important?

1) Block time in your diary

Some projects require a level of focus that is hard to obtain during a standard work day. If you need some time for thinking and reflection, or to move an important project forward, consider blocking dedicated time in your diary. Then keep this time sacred, just as you would time allotted to any other important meeting.

I do this occasionally for large projects that don’t seem to have a clear deadline. I also do this for things like exercise, which otherwise can be too easily pushed aside. I dress in my running clothes when I get up in the morning and block an hour in my diary to run as soon as I drop my daughter off at school. Because I schedule it, I make sure it happens. And by going out first thing in the morning, I get the productivity boost that morning exercise gives you while avoiding getting dragged into a crisis that might otherwise prevent me from giving it the time it needs.

2) Find a new work environment

Even with time set aside, urgent issues can come up that distract. In this case, consider an avoidance tactic – don’t go into the office at all. Work from a new location that is free from your standard distractions.

What this location looks like may vary. For some, who are in a standard office setting, this may be working from home. Those who need quiet may try a local library. Others take a more creative approach: I recently spoke to a team that went on a “coffee crawl” to focus on a strategic project, spending one hour in a local coffee shop before moving along to the next one. They left with a caffeine buzz and a finished project.

3) Don’t go solo

Often times, as leaders, we feel we need to work on the big strategic questions on our own, before we share them broadly. Many organizational cultures reward expert leaders who come with the answers. The bigger the potential transformation, the more leaders tend to want to hold the challenge close until a vision or direction is clear.

In today’s organization, this is short sighted for a number of reasons. Not only are many companies moving toward more collaborative cultures which discourage command and control leadership, but this also can create blockages in progress on large, important change.

Instead of trying to tackle strategic challenges single-handedly, bring in some diverse perspectives. Delegate to a team of high potential talent to explore the question or create a task force to establish the work as a priority. Or, if it really is something you must do alone, find an accountability partner – a coach, a colleague or even a manager you can share your goal with who can check in with you on your progress.

4) Re-assess the project’s importance

Despite being distracted by my to-do list yesterday, I am a big believer in task lists and have an established system for tracking my work. One of the keys to this system is that everything goes on the list and each day I mark those items that have greatest priority. That’s where I put my attention. As I move toward Friday, I shift items to future weeks as my schedule becomes clearer and I am more able to assess what’s possible in the current timeframe.

One of the sub-rules for this system is that if I move something forward three times, I reflect again on its importance. Why is it not getting priority? Is it really essential? If not, and no one is depending on it, it gets cut. If it is important, it automatically becomes a priority in the third week – with time set aside to ensure its successful completion.

5) Break it down

Sometimes in assessing an item’s importance, it becomes clear that the problem isn’t that it isn’t an essential or strategic task or project but in fact it’s not getting done because the next step isn’t obvious. As humans we take the path of least resistance. If we have five things to do that require very little thought and are seemingly urgent, we do those first. Therefore, we are more likely to make progress on those larger, more strategic and important projects if we break them down into clear and measurable tasks and we know what we need to do next.

The next time you find that you are leaving your office at the end of the day frustrated that your important work is not getting done, think about these approaches to managing your work to get a better urgent/important balance. Do you have other methods that work for you? If so please share them in the comments.