So here is the CEO to-do list. Think, talk, listen, buy food and wait to sign things.
There was a phase in the business where I did everything and now I can’t seem to do anything. My day and the tasks that make it up have shifted so dramatically for me over the years that it’s hard to feel the same value I used to feel personally, when it was mostly my own actions that created part of the products that we sold. Now, it seems that I get to the end of the day and I don’t “do” anything. I am dependent on others to get virtually everything done.
A while back I came to the realization that my changing role can be summarized into a very short list. If you asked me what I did for a living, this is what it would be.
- I think
- I talk to people
- I listen to people
- I buy food
- I wait to sign things
Granted, there are other details that get done in a day but I am not really adding value by doing those. These are the areas that I add the most value.
I have said before how I believe that it is important to think and be able to express your thoughts clearly. Thinking is serious stuff. Some people call it planning and others call it strategic thinking or brainstorming. Whatever you call it, thinking is something that takes time to do.
If I don’t make time to think, I end up shifting my entire world into a reactive mode. I stop creating opportunities and start reacting to challenges. It’s a big problem. So I work on thinking. I sit and think, I walk and think. Sometimes I think with paper and sketch diagrams. Sometimes I write words and journal. Sometimes I meditate and pray. Sometimes I lie down to rest, and think.
Becoming comfortable with silence, starting and completing a thought gives me strength to take on the challenges that come, but more importantly it gives me courage to take the action that I need to. Thinking for me is tied to “not doing things.” I have to not do something else to take time to think. I have to not check email, not check voicemail, not read the news, listen to the news. I have to stop all of that and take time to think.
Thinking is a big responsibility. It’s my main role. When I talk to people I express my thoughts. When I listen to people I get new thoughts. When I wait for the team to create something they ask me “what do you think about this…” All of these things require that I know what is important and I have taken the time to think it through.
Thinking is serious stuff. Don’t not think. Don’t get so busy that you don’t have time for it. If you don’t take time to think for yourself, odds are someone else will do your thinking for you. And you will be very disappointed with the results.
Talking with People
Obviously talking with people is very important. Many would group listening into the same category as talking but there is a reason that I have it as a separate item. Let me see if I can explain this.
It’s easier to talk to people when you are reacting to conversation. It’s easier to respond and interact. For me it’s difficult to create the conversation by talking first. As the leader my team and an evangelist for the business much of my communication is projected out in messages that are not reciprocated. I am charged to initiate the dialog, give the speech, share the vision.
Talking to people is where the value is created. Calling people before they call. Reaching out with messages, thoughts, ideas.
Now granted, much of the messages that I reach out with I am looking for dialog and feedback that is true. But it takes initiative to start the conversation.
There is a lot of power in calling someone to tell them something. Especially if you are doing it to start the idea or the conversation. Perhaps you are calling someone to say that they are doing a good job and that you appreciate them. That message is best delivered verbally. Calling someone to share a concern over issues. Also that message is better delivered verbally. As a leader, you have to talk. You have to reach out. You can’t sit back and wait to react.
It’s harder in this digital age to talk. With digital barriers and larger socially connected circles it’s a challenge to reach people. I leave a lot of messages. I have to write emails to break the ice. I have to send a chat message before making the call. I have to blog, I have to do all these things to start the conversation. But the goals is to talk with people.
Listening to People
Equally important is listening. I find that most people do not articulate well what they really want to say. So listening to them is hard. They say one thing and it’s only a fraction of what is really going on with them. So you have to dig a bit to get them to really express well what they want to say.
It’s hard to listen. You may have heard various techniques for active listening. There are coaches out there that specialize just in this. I have found that what helps me is asking them questions if I understand what they are saying. Being honest when I don’t understand something, or tell them “I’m not sure I get it. Say that again.” Boy some people must think I am dense. I used to jump to conclusions and finish sentences for people. I would make assumptions for them on what their message was. However, that burned me bad and created relational problems for me. I have since learned that it’s better to question myself and ask if I really do understand… and where I don’t feed that back to them.
Listening is humbling and strengthening from a character building perspective. Sometimes you endure criticism. And many times the criticism is ill-founded or flat wrong. It’s tough to keep listening without jumping into a defensive attack. Just keep listening.
I find listening to be difficult because of the patience it takes. Again, it seems that I have no time to wait. But listening takes just that. Time.
Listening is an investment in the people that you care about. Encouraging them to talk builds value in your relationships together. Yeah, it’s hard to stay in a listening mode. But it is really important.
Buying food I have learned is an environment building exercise for teams. It’s a trust building exercise for business partners and it’s a relationship building experience for friends.
Buying a meal for a team at the office that is working on a project is both rewarding as well as extremely productive. It encourages dialog and it helps clear the air on issues. It’s a really simple way to solve problems. It forces people to stop doing work long enough that they can clear their minds and share what’s really going on. It’s great for creating a listening environment.
Buying lunch or even just coffee with an employee away from the office helps create conversations which can inspire initiative and lead the way to achieving tremendous things. It also can be a way to deal with difficult issues. Talking away from the office forces people to disconnect from their work environment. They disconnect from their desk and email long enough that they can think with you about what’s important and what needs to get done.
Buying lunch with a prospective business partner or customer can help nurture and solidify that relationship. The same benefits apply. Talking on the phone is not enough sometimes. Just merely exchanging digital communications as well. It’s good to sit down and break bread and spend that thing people call “quality time”. (Personally I am not a fan of that saying. Because time is time… but that’s for another blog post on another day.)
For me it’s really easy to get busy and stay busy and forget to take care of people around me. Buying them lunch or coffee and taking the time to physically be with them is a tremendous way to build that relationship and focus on them.
Waiting to Sign Things
Now I am going to take some creative liberty with this one. I group lot’s of things in the “waiting to sign things” category. I generally group all things that require my official approval as “waiting to sign” them.
I am amazed at how much waiting is required in business today. Granted I run a company that is public so a lot of the documents that I sign are being created by professionals and experts, therefore I am waiting for others to review before I sign. What do I wait for? I wait to review contracts, disclosures and non-disclosures. I wait for proposals I wait for SEC filings. I I wait to sign checks I wait to review financials. I also wait for developers to complete projects. For marketing people to prepare reports and strategy plans. I wait for this and I wait for that.
I wait I wait I wait.
Patience is hard stuff. It’s hard to wait for the team to get their work done. It’s hard to wait for developers to finish something. It’s hard to wait for the auditors, the lawyers, the sales guys, the this team and that team. It’s hard to wait. I am working on this one the most and I’ll probably be working on this one the most for a long time. I try to not hover over someone while they are working.
I find it best if I focus on things that I can control instead. I use the time that I am waiting to be creative and constructive on the Thinking Talking and Listening front. I acknowledge that I am waiting so it clears the air. And I ask whomever I am working with to set the expectation for me so I don’t bother them 20 times in the next hour to see where things are at.
Waiting waiting waiting. It’s hard. But it’s a very real part of the responsibilities that I have. When I can wait and allow for the team to do their work it demonstrates trust in them. When they set an expectation and then they meet that expectation, it builds confidence in them. Yeah, it builds confidence in me too.
When my job on a project is to wait, there is almost nothing I can do. It’s like waiting for the sun to rise. I just have to wait. That’s usually a good time to do some thinking. 😉
Next up for me today is working on my list. I have thinking to do, people to talk to, people to listen to, people to buy food for, and there are things I am waiting to sign.
Hope this helps with the perspective of how important these little things are to get done. It’s easy to feel guilty about not doing anything. Especially if you used to do it all. But if your role is like mine these 5 things really are the most important things that you can do.