After decades of coaching many CEOs and senior leaders, I’ve learned one skill that truly separates a good from a great leader is: where they spend most of their thinking time. We all tend to do the things that come the most naturally to us. Some are analytically trained and think like a strategist without any difficulty. Others are terrific evangelists and can quickly motivate a team to accomplish great things. These skill sets are common among excellent leaders.
So why do some leaders struggle while others can climb their next mountain without much difficulty? I’ve found the answer by studying what great leaders spend most of their time doing and not doing, and it usually reflects the ‘rethinking’ altitude they prefer. David Allen, the Getting Things Done consultant, wrote an excellent article published in the New York Times discussing “The 6 Horizons of Focus.” These horizons can be used to determine where you spend most of your thinking time and how you can improve your leadership.
At our firm, MarketCues, we have found The Six Horizons to be a valuable benchmark for CEOs and executive leaders to evaluate their roles and those that work for them. The primary considerations concern the six horizons of work that help determine what type of thinking a CEO prefers based on where they spend most of their time –– in the air or on the ground. Using David Allen’s definitions below, you can assess yourself by approximating the percentage of time every week that you spend in each of the six levels:
1. On the Ground level: Projects
This is the ground floor – the enormous volume of actions and information you currently have to organize, including emails, calls, memos, errands, stuff to read, file, and things to talk to staff about. If you got no further input in your life, the average executive would likely spend 300-500 hours to finish. Getting a complete and current inventory of the subsequent actions required at this level is quite a feat.
2. 10,000 level: Roles Personal Management
This is the inventory of your projects – all the things you have commitments to finish that take more than one action step to complete. These “open loops” are what create most of your actions. These projects include anything from “look into having a birthday party for Susan” to “buy Acme Brick Co.” Most people have between 30 and 100 of these. If you were to fully and accurately define this list, it would undoubtedly generate many more and different actions than you currently have identified (but likely they are in your subconscious anyway).
3. 20,000 level: Long-term Goals
What’s your job? Driving the creation of a lot of your projects are the four to seven major areas of responsibility that you at least implicitly are going to be held accountable to have done well, at the end of some time period, by yourself if not by someone else (e.g., boss.) With a precise and current evaluation of what those areas or responsibilities are and what you are (and are not) doing about them, new projects are likely to be created and old ones to be eliminated.
4. 30,000 level: Mission and Values
Where is your job going? What will the role you’re in now look like 12-18 months from now, based on your goals and the directions of the changes at that level? We’ve met very few people doing only what they were hired to do. These days, job descriptions are moving targets. You may be personally changing what you’re doing, given personal goals, and the job itself may need to look different, given the shifting nature of work. Getting this level clear always creates some new projects and actions.
5. 40,000 level: Vision (or life goal)
The goals and direction of the larger entity you operate heavily influence your job and professional approach. Where is your company going to be one to three years from now? How will that affect the scope and scale of your job, department, or division? What external factors (like technology) are influencing the changes? How will the definition and relationship with your customers change, etc.? Thinking at this level invariably surfaces some projects that need to be defined and new action steps to move them forward.
6. 50,000 level: Personal Leadership
What work are you here to do on the planet, with your life? This is the ultimate big-picture discussion. Is this the job you want? Is this the lifestyle you want? Are you operating within the context of your actual values? From an organizational perspective, this is the Vision and Purpose discussion. Why does it exist? No matter how organized you may get, if you are not spending enough time with your family, your health, your spiritual life, etc., you will still have “in-completes” to deal with, make decisions about, and have projects and actions about, to get completely clear.
Assessing where you spend most of your time can significantly assist you in understanding what you might need to adjust. For instance, if you find that most of your time is spent working on to-do projects with a micro-managed focus, you might consider delegating them to spend more time on higher-level strategic planning.
For the organization you’re leading, you can also review these six levels with each key employee to determine how they spend their time and if it aligns with their position. Whenever I have conducted a Role Review with a CEO and the leadership team, I often find people “doing” many projects beyond what their role prescribes. I typically find their responsibilities far outside their primary function. This job creep is what keeps them unproductive throughout the day.
How diligent your organization has been in defining the role of each of its employees will determine how much time will be required to perform each of their roles. This is not easy work and sometimes not enjoyable when you find someone working on projects outside the scope of their position. Rethinking is required in these cases to find the best place for the employee without rocking their world.