Morning. Sit down at the desk. Hit the spacebar and wake up the displays. Calendar first. What is happening today, and how do I need to prepare? Any last-minute edits? Conflicts? New meeting additions to the day? Ok, which meetings are unfamiliar? Look at attendees—map names to the organizational chart. Assess political machinations. Look for traps. Three to five minutes to complete. Takes more time earlier in the week.
Slack now. Anything new and unread in the Fires section gets an immediate response. Give either a calming “I am looking at this” emoji or, in the moment, considered response. Direct messages next. Everyone gets a response because this communication is pointed directly at me. Finally, glance at any channel with anything new. Scanning really. Not reading. It’s not going anywhere—ten minutes to Slack Zero.
Mail next. Thanks to obsessively updated mail rules, my inbox is mostly high signal and usually actionable. Make a call on each mail: respond in mail or bounce the thread to Slack? The latter choice sends a strong, intentional signal that is hard to ignore, but I triage and act much faster in Slack. Inbox Zero before 9am is the goal. The goal takes ten to twenty minutes because email is often an annoyingly and unnecessarily long form.
Grab my favorite pen and current notebook. Turn to the bookmarked page and flip back the last few pages to re-cache thoughts, tasks, and important doodles from the prior day.
Now back to calendar. First meeting now. Click on the video conference link and be in the room two minutes before the start time. Every time. Smile.
A Collective Impression
Towards the end of last week, you learned that your boss is taking this week off. She announced her well-deserved vacation in her staff meeting. My question is: describe your first reaction to learning this news. Don’t worry; I won’t tell anyone. A weight lifted, right? A decrease in perceived future stress? You respect your manager, but her absence for five days is a brief opportunity to take a breath, take your foot off the gas, and take a moment to gaze at the sky and let your mind wander.
Not delight about her absence, just relief.
I’ll explain shortly why this hypothetical but probable scenario is mostly bad news. First, let us understand that your ability to foresee how the week-sans-manager is based on your manager’s impression. Who she is. How she acts. What she values and what she’ll ignore. Her popular turns of phrases in meetings. The professional lines she will not cross.
Every leader builds a collective impression with their team. It’s different for each human as each human sees slightly different versions of a leader and values different aspects of the leader. This collective impression is not just your opinion of your leader; it’s your internal working model for how they work. In Situation X, she usually does Y. Knowing this allows you to better prepare for her. She always asks about Y, so we shall prepare by digging deep on all Y questions. The best application of this collective impression is when you can use your leader’s prior experience and learnings to address a problem without their intervention. She capably solves it like this, so shall I.
I would argue that the collective perception of who you are as a leader is as important as your daily visible leadership acts. Better said: the more the team can get the work done without you there, the more effectively you are scaling as a leader. This takes us back to our hypothetical vacation scenario.
Not delight. Just relief. Because your manager is absent.
The absence of leadership is a relief? You can see why this common perception is problematic. The absence of the human accountable for leading the team’s productivity, morale, and efficiency is giving the team relief by not being there.
Of course, you need a vacation. The last three months have been hell. You vastly underestimated the time required to plan the project. You had no idea how many different teams would need a charm offensive to get them aligned with the vision.
It’s no wonder they are relieved by your vacation. They are getting stressed just watching you work. They can see the stress in your face. They can hear it in your words. They are stressed because they are your team, and a team listens in every direction and every manner possible for signal on how they are doing and your frantic sprint to a temporary finish line tells them, “Something is fundamentally wrong.”
Your Hidden Job
It’s your job to show up as an effective, principled, and fair leader in every working moment so that you can teach them how they can do their job when you are not there. This takes us back to the beginning of this article: my Monday morning ramp.
Two minutes early to a meeting. As much as possible. The last act of my morning opening productivity ramp. What lessons do I demonstrate to the meeting attendees by being there two minutes early? A couple: beginning on time is respectful to attendees, and meetings are expensive affairs, so let’s invest our time wisely. There’s a more fundamental lesson I am teaching: Leaders are capable of showing up to meetings on time.
Table stakes, right? How many managers have you worked with who are apparently incapable of showing up to a scheduled meeting on time?
The value built within your company is a function of the quality things the talented humans build. They build these wonderful things with their hands, and proper building requires time. Time is like air: essential and taken for granted until it is in short supply. After hiring and building a diverse set of humans, your primary job as a leader is to give them as much time as possible to do their creative work. My small act of meeting timeliness demonstrates that I value everyone’s time equally.
You’re the metronome. A metronome’s essential but straightforward job marks time at a selected rate by giving a regular tick… or tock. A leader’s job is defined by the professional means by which a thing is done via visible, repeated, and consistent actions. A mandate never defines these standards, but by actively demonstrating you understand the business value of time – precious time – with your actions.
The metronome’s job is constant. Tick. How long does he take to respond to something? Tick. Do meetings always fill the time, or are they done when the work is done? Tick. When he says he will do something, what is your gut reaction to whether or not he will do said thing? Tick. Why is he always five minutes late to every meeting?
A metronome is a simple tool. Your job is mind-bogglingly, complex, and ever-changing. It is perhaps overwhelming to consider the responsibility of showing up as an effective, principled, and fair leader in every working moment so that you can teach them to do their job when you are not there. The more they can effectively handle complex situations themselves, the better.
A simple concept for perhaps an impossible job…
The less they need you to do effectively do their job, the better.