October 9, 2007
Vice President of Looking Out of the Window
The story was a legend in my family when I was growing up.
Once my mom went to have lunch with my dad, who worked as an executive at a company in downtown Minneapolis. When she got to his office she saw him behind his desk with his back turned to the door, looking out the window. She was so impressed by how hard he was working that she immediately elevated him to "Vice President of Looking Out of the Window."
My dad would always get this wry, sheepish smile on his face whenever we told the story. He never defended or justified himself. He just enjoyed the story along with the rest of us.
So after all these decades, let me now come to his defense. Having been in leadership for over twenty years, I now understand exactly what my dad was doing and why. More than that, I know why it was important, and why it is even more important now than ever.
What was he doing? He was thinking. He wasn't daydreaming or resting his eyes or just taking a break. He was ruminating over a problem or an opportunity. He was trying to work something out in his mind that didn't offer an immediate solution. It could have been a strategic issue or a personnel question or something that was relatively insignificant in itself but had political implications within the business. He was thinking.
This may seem self-evident, but leaders and managers need time to think. Sometimes ideas and solutions pop to mind immediately, but even for those with an intuitive bent, this is not always the case. Leaders need to take a step back, to get perspective. Getting focused on the minutia of day-to-day work (important as it can be) can prevent leaders from seeing the big picture.
What may not seem self-evident, however, is that this is more and more difficult with each passing year. The pace and rush of events, information, interactions and decisions continually increase. While e-mail and cell phones have allowed us to get more done faster, it has not reduced our workload. It has only increased the quantity of work to do and the speed at which it is expected to be done. It is all too easy to be overwhelmed.
A number of immediate and longer-term strategies can be employed to restrain this onslaught. It can be as simple as closing your office door or turning off your phone and computer for an hour. If that isn't practical, once a week you may need to get out of the office with a pen and a notepad and a cup of coffee.
It's not uncommon for leadership teams to go offsite for a two- to five-day retreat. Why not do the same on your own? I have done this too rarely myself. When I do it can be renewing and stimulating. I don't always end up with new solutions, but the time to let my mind range more widely than normal is always helpful.
Sometimes, of course, I just sit in my office with my back to the door and catch myself looking out of the window. When I do, I think of my dad.