“On the way from my office back to yours,” I have said so many times to new managers, “you’ll come across a dozen things you would like to change.”
It’s so tantalizing to see a problem and react, to assert yourself in a way that has an instant impact. It’s gratifying and rewarding, and it’s selfish and oftentimes, the wrong thing to do.
Acting strategically is not necessarily about doing the expedient thing. It’s not about allowing yourself to feel good that action was taken or that your influence was exerted. Rather, as Peter Drucker, the so-called founder of modern management, wrote long ago, strategic leaders know the importance of focusing specifically on what needs to be done.
Doing things right vs.
Doing the right things
Management, Drucker said, is about doing things right, but leadership is about doing the right things. It’s the difference between being efficient and being effective.
Unfortunately, discerning the right thing to do, more often than not, is not obvious. The best such decisions are often not instantaneous, no matter how accomplished or experienced you are, and all the less so when you are new to a leadership role. Discernment requires consideration, which requires thought, which requires effort. All of this can happen quickly, but for the best actions, all three steps need to occur.
Consideration, thought, and effort typically seem in short supply. Why is that? Certainly, low levels of engagement can be the culprit.
A Gallup study from found that just 15 percent of workers worldwide say they are engaged at work. That rate is better in the United States, but it is still just 33 percent, leaving a two-thirds majority who are not engaged (or worse, actively disengaged) and therefore disinclined to exert the effort needed for strategic thinking, even if their circumstances allow for that opportunity.
If you think raising levels of engagement is just about employee morale and small perks around the office, you’re hopelessly outdated. Done right, genuine engagement leads to quantifiable boosts to productivity, sales, and profitability. Gallup’s research found that when compared to firms in the bottom quartile of engagement, those in the top quartile exhibited 41 percent less absenteeism, 40 percent fewer defects, 17 percent higher productivity, 20 percent higher sales, 21 percent higher profitability. And perhaps most importantly, engaged employees exhibited a whopping 59 percent lower turnover.
No time to think, only time to do
Low engagement is a big problem—and a topic for another day. That’s not the issue here. My experience with new managers has nothing to do with being disengaged. They were promoted, after all, on the basis of their strong levels of engagement. They want to make a difference.
I believe that the seeming disinclination for serious thought is, in actuality, a consequence of a modern work environment almost designed to stifle thinking. In a place where considered action should be highly valued, there exists instead a place where workers have come to view time for thought as an unavailable luxury.
With its myriad and oftentimes trivial interruptions, the office is where there are forms to be filled, processes to be followed, memos to write, presentations to deliver, and meetings to attend. They are places where loud conversation and a frantic pace of activity can masquerade as real progress. In the worst cases, they are hotbeds of political maneuvering, posturing, and the reading of tea leaves. Many workers will tell you that their days at the office are filled with tedious and laborious requirements that generate no discernible progress towards stated goals.
None of this is to say that all processes are unimportant or to speak in favor of the abolishment of paperwork. Those will always be with us in one form or another. But the organization that doesn’t regularly seek to reduce the burden of those necessary evils misses a real opportunity to capitalize on power of strategic thinking.
Workers, particularly those properly promoted and supported in leadership roles, want to build better products. They want to delight more of their customers, distinguish their company from their competitors, and deliver consistent results. The role of executive leadership is zealously clear the path so that their teams can achieve their best, their most effective work.