Becky Falkingham: Where’s your cabin in the woods?

Twice a year, Bill Gates retires to a cabin in the middle of a forest to spend the week cut off from his work, family and friends. He calls it his ‘think week’ and says it gives him time to be creative and come up with new ideas about his business. It’s his acknowledgement that, for a leader to succeed in their role, there must be an opportunity to periodically take stock and reflect. For many leaders however, the tyranny of wall-to-wall meetings, emails, and phone calls, leaves little room left in the day to really think about their business and their own performance.

Of course, not everyone has access to a cabin in the forest, and individuals have different ways of working that might not respond to a week of solitude, but there are other ways of carving out valuable time to take stock, reflect, and think.

Let others stoke your thinking

Some CEOs will ask their PA to block out regular diary slots although these spaces can often be sacrificed on the altar of business necessity. Travel time can be another haven from the business’s operational demands, as can exercise. Some CEOs I work with make sure they book themselves on to a number of courses and conferences every year to get the space they need and also to listen to others to help stoke their thinking. Visiting other organisations in industries perhaps unconnected with their own, to help freshen idea making, can also be effective.

A classic way to ringfence thinking time with your leadership team is to book an away day, or strategy day. If the time is used wisely it can be very effective but often people go straight back into the day-to-day and don’t take the ideas and the thinking back with them into the business. That’s the key; make the thinking time count… turn it into actions and forward momentum … motivate and inspire the people around you with the thinking you bring.

How do you like to think?

What is right for you will depend on how you like to do your thinking. Do you feed off the thoughts of others or do you prefer solitude? Do you prefer to have that thinking space little and often or do you need longer periods of reflection?

One CEO I work with likes to meet with groups of high potential, next generation leaders in her organisation to glean that different perspective. It’s entirely what makes sense for you. But one mistake often made is to limit the thinking time to business issues. It should be about you as well: what sort of leader you are; your behaviours; how you reacted in certain situations; how you impact the culture in your business. Receiving feedback either from a colleague or an external mentor or coach can be valuable in this process.

Where you add real value

Many of us are conditioned to see work as ‘doing’. That in itself can be a barrier to taking regular time out but thinking and reflecting is where you, as a leader, can add real value to your business. It might be that you can’t afford a ‘think week’ in your schedule, but ensuring regular time to think about the business and your own performance will pay real dividends in the long term.