As a CEO coach I’m often asked by new leaders recently promoted how they should spend their time. While you’d think they would already know the answer, there are different views among management experts and leaders themselves. A clear picture does emerge however, that many leaders are spending time focusing on the wrong things.

Many senior leaders report that they spend the majority of their time in meetings with direct reports, dealing with employee performance problems and analyzing the organization’s performance data, particularly financial data. And they are often behind closed doors, with limited accessabililty.

Most new senior leaders adopt a leadership style based either on watching and imitating a role model or repeating the behaviors that may have served them well in previous, lower-level management positions. The problem is, as renowned CEO coach and management expert Martin Goldsmith has argued in his book, “what got here, won’t get you there.”

John P. Kotter, a foremost management guru, conducted research into the daily work life of effective leaders. He concluded that the most effectives leaders did not spend the majority of time in long scheduled meetings, but rather in many brief and opportunistic spontaneous meetings , often informal in nature, to continually gauge the “temperature” and feeling of what was happening. Kotter also found that highly successful senior leaders rely on indirect influence with employees, compared to middle managers, who rely more on the authority of their position to effect control and change.

What about recruiting and selecting eaders? Kotter found that organizations would be better at developing their own leaders rather than spending money on executive recruiters. The track record of leaders developed from within the organization is much better than those hired from without. There is conventional wisdom that organizations should hire the “best and brightest” from the market place. Yet, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his article in The New Yorker, “The Talent Myth, Are Smart People Overrated?” this practice is questionable at best.

Peter Senge, writing in the Leader To Leader Journal, argues the best leaders spend their time building learning organizations and distributed leadership: “Executive leaders can change their own ways of thinking and interacting, and thereby become a persuasive role mode. They can and must develop strategies for creating an environment in which people are open to new ideas, response to change, and eage to develop new skills and capabilities.”

Several studies have shown, and it has been validated by my experience that highly successful and inspirational leaders spend  a majority (up to 75%) of their time developing their organizational culture. So what would they be doing? Here’s a summary of the most important behaviors. They spend a lot of time and energy:

  • In direct conversations with their employees (and their customers) and not just their direct reports (usually other executives), so they can get a present-time and unfiltered view of what is happening inside and outside of the organization;
  • Developing talent in their organizations, particularly their leadership team. This includes coaching others and providing support and resources and celebrating successes rather than criticizing and judging;
  • Attend other team meetings as an observer of team functioning and the leadership behaviors of others;
  • Developing and reinforcing the organization’s cultural values, purposes and long-term strategies (as opposed to short-term wins);
  • Observing, listening and reflecting, rather than talking, convincing and needing to be in the spotlight.

The role of senior leaders is critical to organizational success. How those leaders spend their time is one measure to predict their success and ultimately that of their organizations. 

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