“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings’.”
– Dave Barry
My work-life is filled with meetings. On an average day my calendar may have less than an hour of non-committed time, with the rest locked down in 30-minute and 1-hour blocks. I run to conference rooms scattered across two buildings and ten floors. No matter how hard I try to make sure I have time to live my “open door” leadership philosophy, no matter how hard I push to say “no” when I am not the right person for the dialogue, I have been unsuccessful in controlling the creeping ooze that is meetings.
And, that is why what happened this week was so surprising and delightful.
As I approached the end of year holidays (and the week I habitually take off between Christmas and New Years) a remarkable thing happened. I watched with giddiness as one by one meetings fell off my calendar, cancelled or rescheduled for next year. It felt like everyone took a collective breath and admitted, all at once, that their crisis wasn’t as urgent as they thought. Nothing catastrophic would happen if the discussion or decision or action happened a few business days later. We wouldn’t all turn into pumpkins if it didn’t happen before — bwahaahaa — the end of year.
In the course of a day, my calendar tipped from 90% meetings to 90% free time. And, faced with that unusual reality, I was able to act differently. I was able to lean into three transformative conversations and address each issue with my full capabilities, giving it not just 30-minutes of my thoughtful attention, but the amount of time the relationship or challenge needed to make true and real progress.
One of those examples started with a completely random event. Walking to the restroom, I saw a project manager from one of my big development efforts heading back to her desk. I paused and asked her how she was. She made a throwaway comment, the kind that says, “Not great, but I’m working it out.” In my normal life, faced with my normal calendar, I would have given her a conspiratorial wink and told her to keep at it.
But, not this time.
In that moment, with a calendar unconstrained by another meeting, I slowed down. I listened past her words to see the tension in her eyes. I thought I could sense that, under the bravado, she was signaling that she needed help. My help. With a wide-open calendar the next day, I asked if she happened to be in and whether she could free up some time for chat. She was and could. She scheduled 30 minutes for us the next day.
We connected as planned and after our 30 minutes were up, she had barely had enough time to brief me on the knotty challenge she was facing. On a normal day, I would have whipped off a few witticisms and metaphorically shouted “next!” to whoever was in my waiting room. But, with the freedom of an open calendar, we had time to explore. I asked probing questions to gain understanding. I jotted down ideas on my white board. What about this? How would that be perceived? Are these ideas connected? Would this be understood?
Together we realized that we didn’t have one challenge, we had four. And that the challenges were not independent but tightly related to a single business trade-off that we could address on a continuum. With an aligned mindset, we modeled an approach that would allow our business leaders to explicitly respond the in an upcoming meeting; we defined a way that would allow us to enlist them in the deciding the answer instead of pushing something on them.
It was invigorating and I went home that night feeling that I had done less but delivered more.
The next morning as I was getting ready for the day’s activities I looked up to see her standing in my doorway. She was smiling and just wanted to let me know that after we talked she had connected with our business sponsor who had been just as excited about the direction we had identified. We talked a bit about the progress we had made the day before and what had made it possible: Approachability. Purpose. Listening. Time.
Later that morning I found myself with another executive and I shared the experience. I told him that we needed to find a way, as leaders, to create more opportunity to shift from activity to engagement. We needed to give ourselves the time to think deeply and help our teams pause long enough to understand the issues fully so we could really resolve them. I looked at him and asked rhetorically, “What happens if we can only count on those moments happening once a year when the vast majority of our team members are on vacation?”
I don’t have an answer. All I can say is that I have been as guilty as the next leader of incorrectly correlating productivity with activity and motion with progress. But this week I was faced with a striking example where real results were connected not with “time-boxing” and “efficient agendas” but with simply being open to listening and letting the conversation go where it needed to go, with letting connections happen not purposefully but organically. That example has led me to a goal for myself.
Next year, I will create an opportunity to do it more.