I’m writing this from a Starbucks. I have new Bose noise canceling headphones on. My Chromebook and my coffee are the only things on my table. My configuration this morning is not accidental. I planned for minimal items to help me maintain focus on the essentials – just what I need in this moment.
I often think of myself as a paradox.
I like sitting in a bustling Starbucks, but not interacting with anyone while I think about how best to communicate my thoughts. I like quiet times with just a handful of people, and I really enjoy standing on a stage performing. I like a lively party, I get re-energized late at night, and retreat to a peaceful, lazy morning.
I like getting to the office early. I need engaging meetings with my team, and I need solitary times to think. I get tired around 2PM and find that a walk refreshes me. If I’m in too many highly social situations during a day, I’m exhausted and I need to disengage my brain. If I’m alone too much, I feel confined and need to get out.
I’ve spent years understanding all those things about myself, and I learn more all the time. I’ve learned to be in-tune with my energy patterns. It has taken me years to come to respect that there are just some ways that my body and mind work, and working against them is a struggle and, at times, futile.
I have people around me who I’ve asked to tell me when I seem “off.” They have the green light to tell me how I appear on the outside. Do I look angry? Do I seem stressed? Am I strangely quiet, disturbed? Sometimes something is off, and I haven’t yet pinpointed what the problem is, but they can see it, and the feedback snaps me back into consciousness about what’s going on in my body or mind.
Recognizing all these things and more, and making a deliberate effort to understand as much as I can about how I function best is important. Too often, we accept circumstances and operate within them when we instinctively know that it’s not the best for us. And as we stay in those circumstances, our ability to see outside of them begins to diminish. We become myopic, accepting of our own and other’s ways of working that simply aren’t good for us or them.
That’s why I’m at Starbucks right now. My alternative is to be at a gym that I own. There, I will listen to the low bass beat while people work out. I’ll watch a constant flow of members coming in and out. I’ll listen to coaches’ ideas, concerns, questions. I’ll inspect the floor and see if it’s clean. I’ll get caught up in the operations. Soon the day will be gone, and one of the important things on my list will be left undone – answering the question for myself and my team – “how do we know if the business is healthy?”
No, this morning I’m at Starbucks with my Chromebook, my coffee, and my headphones. For me, this is a quiet space with minimal distraction.
I spent some time making a chart that breaks down various moving parts of the business – coaches, members, marketing, operations, and a few others. For each, I listed out the key indicators of success, along with how each can be measured, and how it’s reported on, at what frequency, and by whom. Having this chart enables me, the coaches, and the gym manager to understand how we’re performing in critical areas: coaching quality, member happiness, new members, marketing efficiency, and more. I’ll roll out this measurement and report to the coaches in the coach meeting later today.
I would not be able to make this chart had I just gone to the office. I needed space to think. I needed to not see people. I needed to ignore non-essential questions. I needed the silence and clean desk. I had to step away.
Stepping away is a necessary part of leading.
Stepping away can clarify what’s important.
No one cares like the business owner. You’ve heard that before, but it’s not entirely true. The more true saying is “no one cares in the same way as the business owner.” The trouble is that many business owners don’t know what’s important anymore. The unimportant details have a certain allure – they’re easy to pinpoint, easy to solve. Remember when you put that filing cabinet in the front office? Well, the staff wants it in the back, and all you, as the leader, can think about is why you put it in the front. Important to you? Yep. Important to the business? Not at all.
Why do you care?
We all have 100 percent of our brain capacity available to us in any given moment. Today, I could have given away my capacity to others and smiled as people walked in and out. I could have a few conversations, and be personable. Or, I could use my capacity in a more leveraged way – to figure out what’s really important to the business, and then create a plan to train the employees on it. Intuitively you know that creating the plan, and training others is the better choice. Yet, how often have you done it?
Stepping away can open up new opportunities.
I have practiced the discipline of stepping away frequently in the past fifteen years in business. Prior to that, I worked a job and didn’t know I could step away. Owning a business, leading from the front lines, involves new responsibility. It’s necessary to see more and see more clearly. It’s important to leave the day-to-day, to what is next. What do the next five years look like? Where is the business headed? What are the opportunities ahead?
The lure of getting caught in the day-to-day, the easy to decide, will sap the energy of great leaders. We cannot simultaneously devote 100 percent of our mental effort to the day-to-day, and have any remaining for considering what to do next. A leader must strategically assess what the future can be while clearly communicating that to the team. The only way I’ve found to do that is by stepping away.
Stepping away is a discipline. I know that I need to step away when I become ineffective. Sometimes this happens in the early afternoon, and I’ll take a walk. Sometimes it happens over days, and I discipline myself to get out of the office and discover why.
I know I need to step away when I feel like I don’t know what’s next. I step away when my “take over the world” to-do list becomes short or meaningless, and I feel like I’m not making progress, or not making progress on the right things. That requires a bit of introspection, but the reset can be extraordinary.
I owned an e-commerce company years ago. We were struggling with keeping salespeople motivated to sell, provide great customer service, and take unlimited time to troubleshoot with customers after purchase. My business partner exercised a discipline of going out for a working breakfast once a week, and on the back of a placemat wrote out what would become a performance pay system. That system revolutionized our sales and technical support quality. It would not have happened had we not taken the time to step away.
I know I need to step away when I have an important opportunity before me, but I can’t find the time to focus on it. Getting to a new location – maybe a coffee shop – can open up a new energy pathway, and I can think again. I stay there until I feel like everything I need to get out is out. I found myself doing this frequently over the past year, as I assessed people and their positions in the companies we own. Being comfortable leaving for the day, to carefully consider who fits where made a significant difference in the health of the company.
Stepping away is valued by your peers. Because I’m “the boss,” people tend to treat me as though my opinion carries special weight. However, I have a lot of opinions about a lot of things, and I have a difficult time keeping my opinions to myself. You can appreciate the rub when smart people want to get their jobs done but need to listen to my opinion. People have a tendency to listen to me and think they should or need to follow it. The challenge is that my opinion is just that – an opinion.
When I am not physically present, a lot of good things are accomplished that I find out about after the fact. And, that’s the way it should be – smart people doing good work without my involvement. My occasional physical distance can make for happier, more productive people, and a happier me.
Now, some will argue that stepping away can make a leader disconnected. Some leaders will take this as license to leave and ignore important matters. Some will argue that details of every decision matter and they need to stay attached to them. Maybe you’ve tried to step away and had a poor experience or felt you were less productive. Whatever reasons you have for not stepping away, I likely can’t convince you otherwise just by writing this. Your reasoning is nuanced, and it’s something you will need to work through. Even still, stepping away is a discipline every aspiring leader should incorporate.
Knowing when you should step away and actually doing it can be one of the most productive things you will ever do. If you make it a discipline and use the time wisely, you may find that you and your organization can thrive.