The Power Of Stepping Back
I am the chief executive of my company, with responsibility for 30 people in the United States and another two offices overseas. As part of my vacation last month, I took two weeks when I was completely offline and didn’t check in to my office at all.
Was this a wise move? Was it responsible?
First, the practical issues. My out-of-office message directed people to reach others in my office if they needed something urgently. My colleagues knew how to reach me if necessary. I also trusted them to take care of issues that might arise. I also knew that they’d contact me if there was something they thought demanded my attention.
My brain had just gotten too crowded. With so much external distraction and so many issues competing for my attention, I was only able to give small amounts to any one. To make deeper and more meaningful connections between the disparate ideas in my head, I needed to free up both time and internal space.
That isn’t easy, as you surely know. The pull of digital life makes it as addictive as any drug. Truly disconnecting from e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest or whatever your latest fixes may be is nearly impossible for most of us to contemplate. I solved the problem simply: when my wife and I went to visit our daughter and her husband in Amsterdam, I didn’t bring my laptop and I didn’t activate my phone.
We hung out together, biked, walked and lingered in restaurants. But I also took a couple of hours for myself in the afternoons. I sat down with a journal and a pen, and free-associated. At first, it was just a jumble of thoughts about the new direction I believe our company needed to take. As the days went on, though, the thoughts began to sort themselves out, and clarify and cohere.
Time without interruptions and imminent deadlines was an incredible luxury. I didn’t feel rushed to arrive at conclusions or solutions. I could pursue an idea or a direction without worrying about its immediate utility. It allowed me to take a much more long-range view. But along the way, I found myself musing on a range of other concerns.
For a decade now, for example, I’ve been trying to define what our company does in a simple, accessible way. I never came up with a description I found satisfying. But one afternoon, my mind unexpectedly wandered down that path. Literally five minutes (and 10 years) later, I had this sentence:
“We help organizations create workplaces that are healthier, happier, more focused, more purposeful and higher performing, by better meeting the needs of their employees — physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.”
As I struggled with how our company could better serve its mission, I spent a lot of time thinking about what people needed if they were to thrive. It dawned on me that most of us assume we’ve reached maturity — adulthood — around the time we joined the working world.
But the fact is that we have vast potential to expand not just our range of skills over the course of a lifetime, but also to deepen our self-awareness, relax our self-absorption, widen our circle of care and lengthen our perspective. In the weeks ahead, I’ll be writing about why such growth is so critical for the next generation of leaders.
I returned to the office this week feeling re-energized and inspired by the opportunity to reflect, read and relax.
A couple of significant client issues had arisen in my absence, but they didn’t require my involvement.
The most common reason many of us feel compelled to answer e-mail constantly is that we are addicted to feeling connected. And by the end of two weeks, I couldn’t resist checking e-mail any longer, even knowing that if anything critical arose, my office would find me.
What I know now is that nothing terrible would have happened if I had stayed off longer. Many of us want to believe we’re more indispensable than we really are.
When I did go back online, there were a couple hundred e-mails I had to respond to, but I just sat down in a couple of focused 90- minute sessions and dealt with them. If I’d been answering them throughout my time away, I’d never have been able to do the sort of thinking I did.
It’s not possible to race between meetings and e-mail all day long, and simultaneously reflect on what all this frenzied activity is accomplishing. We can’t think outside the box when we’re simply running around inside it. It doesn’t make sense to do more and more, faster and faster, if we’re not stopping intermittently to ask why we’re doing what we’re doing.
I’ve already introduced two experiments in my company this week.
The first is to offer all of our employees the opportunity to take time away from the office, simply for reflection. All I ask is that they come back afterward and share with their colleagues, in some form, whatever insights they’ve had.
The second is to introduce two 15-minute periods a day during which people are invited to come into our conference room and sit quietly, in meditation, or simply reflecting — one at the start of the day, the second at midafternoon.
I’m convinced that we’ll derive more value from these periods of “not doing” than from simply trying to get as much done as possible. I’ll keep you posted on our progress.