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Leadership2050 Edition 3, For CEOs: Time Matters

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Hello all. Firstly, a massive thank you to everyone who has signed up to this newsletter. There are now over 2000 subscribers and this number is continuing to grow, creating a great community of leaders who are looking at how to create a positive future world between now and 2050. So, onwards to this edition…

When we review historical aspects of our lives, we often ask ourselves ‘Did we spend time on the things that really matter to us?’ Time can be a good, although not complete, proxy for what we deeply value. 

There is value in reviewing our history using this metric, but only to a limited extent. We cannot change history – only learn from it. What really matters is how we spend our time today and, in the future, as this is what we can control. 

When observing myself, I often find that I start a day, week, month or year with a clear set of intentions, then only to find that ‘life’ gets in the way. Consequently, I find myself at the end of the day, week, month or year with a gap between my initial intentions and how they align with the reality of how I ‘spent my time’. What I can say is that my regular meditation practice is closing this gap. 

This insight, and its relevance to how CEOs and others lead today, became particularly relevant during an interview I carried out for the podcast series that will accompany this newsletter (also called Leadership2050), which will launch later this year. The interview was with Katherine Garrett-Cox, the CEO of the Asset Manager Gulf International Bank UK, where she started by describing how ‘I firmly believe that the purpose of an organisation matters. It matters to those who work in it tirelessly every day. It should absolutely matter to shareholders and stakeholders. We have worked tirelessly over the last three-and-a-bit years to put together a team of people who share a singular mission to mobilise and scale capital in support of sustainable development.  We are now moving into solution mode’. 

She then went on to talk about how she and her team are moving towards this ‘solution mode’ by finding opportunities to bring this purpose to life. This is through beginning to transform the way in which the asset management normally functions and what it focuses on.

Katherine went on to say: ‘What we have been doing is thinking long and hard about how we implement this purpose in a global equity strategy. This is enabling us to take long-term positions in companies where we believe they are solving some of the world’s greatest challenges. We are doing this by talking about issues where others are not. We are now exploiting two major issues. How do we create humanitarian and resilience investing? This is not an investable space at the moment. It is typically in the domain of the aid agencies, where there is not enough money going around to meet the need with just them picking up the cost. Therefore, how do we, as a finance industry, help build resilience in communities who need it most? To this end we have been working with the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNHCR and the World Economic Forum, amongst others, on how we create a data set to enable the private sector to address these issues. The other area is ‘Blue Finance,’ also known as Ocean Finance. How do we use the oceans and protect what is in them? How do we create resilience? It’s all about creating resilience. With reference to your theme, (Leadership2050) it’s all about long-term investing coming together with resilience’. 

We then went on to talk about how she did this – taking us back to the main theme of this newsletter. Amongst several other factors, Katherine spoke about the importance of time, and how changing how you use and spend time, means that you open up the space for learning and transformation. 

Katherine added: ‘I think it's a perennial trap that CEOs fall into. They fill their diaries with things that are neither urgent nor important. Create thinking time in your diary. For our Executive Team, this means that Friday afternoons are free of meetings to allow what I call ‘project headspace’. How do we as leaders get out of our comfort zone and meet people from whom we can learn about something that we know nothing? As a leader, if you don’t retain the inherent desire to be curious, you have lost something’. 

To address this challenge of the gap between the important and seemingly urgent, and thus enable the purpose driven transformation that is needed between now and 2050, I have often found that a time audit is a valuable intervention in the work that I do when coaching CEOs and other senior leaders. This is a process that is made much easier by using electronic diaries. 

The first step in this process is to identify what is most important on the short-, medium- and long-term horizons. You can ask this question from multiple perspectives. The first is from your own. There are a number of really good questions to get you to the heart of this challenge, including: what do you really care about when you look at the world? What were you doing when you had a really good day? What legacy do you want to leave when you exit this position? Similar questions should be asked from many other perspectives, over similar timeframes; direct reports, employees, customers, suppliers, regulators, shareholders, the environment and society all matter here. The first step comes together when you ask yourself, what is my purpose as a leader and what is our purpose as an organisation? In other words, why do we exist and for whom, and what difference would there be if we failed to exist, and for whom? This step often leads to a much deeper sense of ‘being’, where the focus is on ‘who I am’ and ‘who we are’, rather than ‘what I do’ and ‘what we do’. This stillness is the place from where deep transformation comes. 

The second step is to take a 2- to 4-week time period (without any exceptional events within this period) and classify all the activities that took place in terms of the audience and the focus of the activity. As you start to review your diary, a classification set of criteria will become clear. You will then be able to complete steps 3 and 4. 

The third step is to look at the gaps between what you discovered in the first step and the reality of the second.  You can ask questions such as Where are the biggest gaps? What are the implications of not closing the gap? What opportunities are you missing if this gap does not close? and What risks are present due to this gap being as it is?

The fourth step is to look at what changes you can make to close the gap between what you discovered in the first step and found as a reality in the second. This is where real wisdom is needed. As a CEO, any change that you make is not neutral, i.e. there will be winners and losers from any that you make. Some of these will be unintended and may surprise you. It may also take time to evolve not just your own diary, but also the diaries and priorities of others. Hence, carrying out this process with your wider Executive Team could be very effective and lead to a more sustainable level of transformation. Talking through any changes with trusted advisers or a coach could also be very useful. 

The fifth step is to use the classification system that you have developed in step two as an ongoing means to access your diary. Working with your Executive Assistant can simplify and potentially semi-automate this process. You may also wish to use this process with your Executive Team and beyond, to access how you are collectively ‘spending your time’, and potentially build this into your strategy process and individual and team performance review structure. The final point to remember is that some of these values and priorities will not change, whilst others will be dynamic in nature, as they will reflect the dynamic context in which you are leading. 

The outcomes from such a process are too numerous to detail. But, what we can see from Katherine’s interview is that the process starts with different conversations, leading to different decisions, which then lead to different products and services, and all of this leads to creating a more positive impact on the world. 

In coming to a conclusion, I am reminded of the words of Eckhart Tolle in the book Stillness Speaks, who writes that ‘When you lose touch with stillness, you lose touch with yourself… when you lose touch with yourself, you lose yourself in this World’. This speaks to the vital need to be in a place of ‘being’ and not lost in a place of ‘doing’ – a process that is greatly assisted by activities such as meditation and spending time in nature. Understanding how you spend your time as a leader can be the starting place for deep transformation. I will focus more on this in future editions of the Leadership2050 newsletter. Also, look out for an amazing podcast with Katherine Garrett-Cox in due course – I will make an announcement about this in future editions. 

Finally, you may be interested to know why I am asking these questions?  As a Senior Fellow of Management Practice at Said Business School (SBS), University of Oxford, my research and teaching focuses on how leaders transcend such 21st century challenges as disruptive technology change and the climate crisis; also, how leaders create cultures that are diverse, inclusive, resilient and high performing, alongside the ongoing challenge of delivering profitable growth. I direct the Oxford Advanced Management and Leadership Programme and, in this capacity, I work with leaders from many countries, industries and governments. All this has given me a deep understanding of how good leaders create value and bad leaders destroy it, as measured from multiple perspectives. One could argue that never before has this been so important on a global stage, hence the reason that I am undertaking this work.

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