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Making Time: The Leaders' Real Work

by Lisa Marshall

Recently I started noticing how often I hear comments such as these in organizations: "We're not allowed to say no, and there's never enough time to do everything we've committed to." "They just keep piling more on me with all these downsizings -- there's no way I can get it all done." "I don't have time to get to my normal work with all these crises."

In response, I find myself asking, "Where's your leadership?" Of all the roles leaders must play today, one of the most significant is that of time-maker. . When you work for an organization, you have given over some of your time, in exchange for pay and other rewards. You can end up in a pressure-cooker unless your leaders do their job well. Leaders need to make the hard decisions that prioritize. In doing so, they give people the gift of time - time to do well the things that really matter.

This does not mean that leaders must make time through command and control. Collaborative leadership is the ability to produce an environment where goals are clear, people's knowledge and talent gets used to reach the goals, and relationships with customers and suppliers are fruitful.

To act as a leader in this way, five skill sets are required.

The first is developing a clear sense of the organization's desired outcomes -- where it is headed, what heading in that direction will get it, and how everyone in the organization can tell they're on the right track. This focused sense of direction enables leaders to hold clear boundaries for themselves and for the organization. In holding those boundaries, the leader plays one of his or her most crucial roles - that of creating the psychological container within which work can get done. With good leadership, people are freed of distractions and able to concentrate.

The second and third skill sets that are needed are building strong relationships and getting good information. I tie the two together because, without trust, leaders are often denied access to critical information. In other words, if leadership is known for "shooting the messenger", they are unlikely to get the message. And certainly not in time to do anything. By building strong relationships, leaders encourage people to come forward with the bad news as well as the good. Then and only then can they coordinate action in ways that give people enough time to deliver results.

The fourth skill set needed by leaders is balance. Balancing needs of internal or external customers, employees, and other stakeholders, keeps agreements current and avoids the time-consuming hassles of broken deals or catch-up activity. Constant clarification of expectations gives leaders the ability to be the calm center in the eye of the storm. Timely management of tasks that reach goals and meet needs is the leader's balancing act. . If leaders practice the skill of making requests and agreements, people have time to do what needs to be done.

The fifth skill leaders need is the ability to learn. In our turbulent world, just because something worked yesterday doesn't guarantee it will work today. If leadership doesn't understand, bone-deep, the human interactions that made something work, they'll focus attention in the wrong places. Learning to recognize the fundamental architecture of what makes their organization effective gives leaders powerful leverage in the marketplace and in prioritizing their own efforts.

Smart leaders know it's not enough for them to understand these realities -- learning needs to occur enterprise-wide, across the whole organization, if the people doing the work are going to make the decisions they need to make with as much knowledge as possible.

On a day last October when the value of his company's stock had dropped 45% in a week, the CEO of BankOne, the Richmond, VA-based credit card company, spoke to the National Leadership Institute's conference on coaching. He credited his two years of executive coaching with having given him the ability to "keep his head when all around were losing theirs." "I knew our model worked and would continue to work. And I knew I had to keep my head so that people wouldn't panic and would get back to work." In doing so, that CEO demonstrated all five skill sets - and made time for his people. He kept the organization's boundaries intact so that people could stay focused on what really mattered, and gave them time - time to recover and move on. That's real leadership.
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