Leaders Need ‘Think Time’

I still vividly remember and regularly reflect on a conversation I had with my CEO early in my career as the chief learning officer and vice president of U.S. training for McDonald’s Corp. He said to me, “Diana, you have such an important role on my executive team; are you ensuring you have enough time to think?”

I remember being caught so off-guard by the question. What did he mean by that? Did he think I wasn’t leading my team and the learning and development function in the right direction? Didn’t he understand the massive amount of work my team was involved in? So I took a deep breath and asked for clarification, a tad worried at what I might hear. Instead, I heard some of the best advice I’ve ever been given.

He explained how important it is for leaders to take the time — to make the time — to step back and refresh their perspective if they are to continue leading others in the right direction, and ensuring the company remains relevant and successful. He explained that as a CEO he actually scheduled “think time” on his busy calendar.

As I have grown as an executive and as a coach, I have found that leaders are more successful when we regularly make time to “strategically think.” This entails getting off the treadmill and away from distractions — stepping back, sitting down, maybe even staring out the window for a while you just think. Only by focusing your thoughts can you continue to ensure a strong connection to your stakeholders and the core of your business or mission as the environment changes; to ensure that your team is achieving the desired results and necessary impact on the organization; and to confidently determine adjustments that may be in order.

Finding the “extra” time to do this seems impossible for busy executives with already-too-full plates. I’ve come to realize this is something that sets apart the most successful leaders — like my former CEO, they make the time to reflect and strategically think.

Together as learning leaders, we will be stepping back and spending some high quality strategic think time at the upcoming CLO Accelerator program prior to the CLO Symposium. We will explore the following topics to ensure you and your function are best aligned with the business, and structured for success.

Keys to ensure you are set up for success:

Focus on the right stakeholders. Are you in touch with your most important stakeholders, including your training audience? Throughout my career, I have seen my stakeholders dramatically change — especially external audiences (e.g., customers, bosses of learners, top leadership). It is a given that the world and marketplace will continue to change, which will most likely affect your organization and what you need to be providing. Do you have ways to stay connected directly to your training audience so that what you are providing is actually being brought to life?

Put the best structure in place for the organization. As a learning leader who progressed through a Fortune 100 company, I experienced a variety of corporate structures — decentralized, centralized, then more of a networked structure. Each structure has its pros and cons, and as a leader you should take the time to better understand the different options. I caution you to not advocate for your personal preference but to be a champion for the best solution for the overall organization, not just your piece of it.

Staff for success. Once you have a handle on your stakeholders and the best structure, staffing your team with the right talent is critical to your success. My greatest accomplishment as a learning leader was the team I built and led. My motto was, “Bring in the best, then make them better.” Go for “A” players — people who not only have the ability but also want to be a part of bringing your vision and strategies to life. The time and effort expended on trying to improve the performance of “C” players rarely pays off.

Value governance and oversight. Another component of my success, I believe, was having a governance group committed to providing valuable input on the direction and results of our team. My governance board was made of key leaders in the organization, as well as highly respected stakeholders. When you have the right group and processes in place, governance and oversight is very beneficial.

As a leader, making the time to regularly reflect, plan and adjust will allow you to be more strategic, more proactive, less of a firefighter and less stressed. I encourage you to keep networking and learning from the insights of your peers and experienced learning leaders like myself. I know I am a much better leader because of the people who have helped guide me, and willingly and honestly shared their advice and personal learnings. It’s my privilege to be able to do the same for you as part of your accelerated development.

Thomas will be teaching these topics at the Chief Learning Officer Accelerator program this fall.