The Craft of Leadership:
Seven Strategies to Make Time to Lead

Laurence N. Smith
Leadership, Innovation and Change Expert

During my career as a university administrator, consultant, executive coach and CEO, I have gathered valuable lessons about what it takes to be a successful leader. Some of those lessons come from my personal experience during 31 years as a university vice president. Others come from asking board members, administrators, faculty and students about the skills they thought were important. Still others come from focus groups conducted in researching books and articles. From all of these sources some common themes have emerged. Taken together, these skills constitute the craft of leadership.

Today, I want to share one of them: How to use your most important leadership resource: time! If you have recently become a new president, provost, vice president or dean, this could be one of the most important messages you receive. And if you are an “old timer” it is a way of checking up on how you are doing.

As an executive, you have three ways to spend your time at work.

Your roles as an executive are administration, management, and leadership:

  • Administration refers to routine day-to-day tasks that include implementing programs, activities or services, attending to details, and attending meetings.
  • Management includes actions that ensure that resources are turned into results in the most efficient and effective ways. That includes managing budgets, assigning responsibilities, measuring results and holding people accountable.
  • Leadership is the work of preparing people to create a successful future. That requires an inspiring vision that mobilizes the organization to focus on strategies, goals, and objectives that ensure the viability and healthy future of the institution. It also means fostering innovation that will prepare the people for change.

Successful leaders need to identify and pursue actions in the areas where they have accountability and responsibility. These are the long-term initiatives, strategies, goals and objectives for their institution’s surviving and thriving in the future. They need to identify pathways for success, metrics to be met and milestones for doing so. To be successful they need to carve out a considerable amount of time to fully engage in the leadership process.

The danger for leaders is being trapped by the demands of management and administration that crowd out the time they need to devote to successful leadership.

Time management is really self-management
Everyone has the same amount of time each week: 168 hours. After we subtract the hours for sleep, family and social life and commuter time, there may be 60 or 70 hours available for work. When you subtract time for seemingly constant distractions and unproductive killer meetings that sap energy and focus, little time remains to plan for the future.

There is an old saying, “The urgent demands of today will outweigh the important needs of tomorrow.”

As a leader your responsibility is to take control of your day, week, month and year to ensure that you have the time you need to lead. Unfortunately, there are forces that conspire to keep you from reclaiming that time. One is time wasted in unproductive meetings in the name of collaboration. The other is your own tendency to spend time on things you like to do rather than the things that are hard. This is a topic for another day but one you need to be aware of.

Seven Strategies to Make Time for Leadership

Strategy #1: Reserve time for leadership on your schedule
Open your calendar and block out specific times needed for accomplishing leadership initiatives. Remember, there are never 15 weeks until something is due, there are only so many available days and hours within 15 weeks for doing so. At one public institution the president complained his calendar was so full he hardly had time to focus on daily matters let alone long-term planning. We asked if the governor called and asked him to head up a state-wide initiative, is that what he would say?

Today it is the future that is calling. Are you willing to make time to answer? To start, set aside a morning each week to focus on the future. No meetings, no phone calls, no answering email. Use it to read, talk to colleagues, write or otherwise explore what needs to happen to be ready for 2025 or 2030. Look at what vision your people need from you to embrace the changes that will be required. You need to plan for how you will use that time. Keep a record of what you work on.

Strategy #2: Delegate for Results
A lack of effective delegation is the unwillingness or inability of top administrators to hand off tasks that others should be doing. This is usually because these are things they enjoy doing or feel won’t be done well without their personal involvement. We identify this as focusing on PPs (personal preferences) instead of OOs (organizational objectives).

There are two dimensions of delegation. One dimension is to delegate work that gets in the way of focusing on the future; the other is delegating tasks that will help you focus on the future. Identify staff and others that need to be involved and get them on the pathway as well. While they are doing so, they should also make sure to mark off time to fully complete their assignments, for reporting results, productivities instead of activities, and asking for help to overcome difficulties that they are encountering.

Strategy #3: Change the way you manage your availability
Schedule appointments in 20-minute blocks; start appointments at the 10 or 20 minute mark of each hour. Avoid the academic norm that meetings and classes start at the hour mark and last 50 minutes. The first 20 minutes of the hour can be used to make or return calls or catch up on other matters.

Strategy #4: Hold short “stand-up” meetings for staff to report results
What gets measured is what gets done! Make sure that those who are working with you do not confuse activity with productivity. Reporting in a 20-minute block of time tells others that time is a precious commodity. Focusing on results attained keeps the message alive that what you have been asked to do is important to make the time to do it. Holding a stand-up meeting conveys that this is not a social gathering but a high level performance report.

Strategy #5: Educate about expectations and encourage others
The first four strategies are not as difficult to implement as they might appear. Changing behavior, however, is difficult, especially when it is your own behavior that needs to change. Recognize that change involves not only what we want to change but how we need to change to make it happen. A successful component of time management is taking time to educate those who will be most affected why it is necessary under pressing conditions and how it will work and benefit the organization. This is a change for those whom you deal with. The first response to change is “how does it affect me.” It can liberate and/or paralyze. Dialogue and sensitivity are important as we ask people to change to make change.

Strategy #6: Set organizational priorities and limits
It has been said that the nice thing about not planning strategically is that failure comes as a complete surprise. Planning time management allows for determining if commitments exceed leadership or organizational capacity. Strategic planning of human resources committed to change initiatives is a critical task. There are limits to performance capacity. People need to know how to work harder or smarter.

Strategic planning allows organizations the ability to determine what can be done and what cannot be accomplished. It provides the basis for recommending additional resources that will be needed or what priorities need to be reordered or eliminated. Since organizational capacity has its limits, inability to demand performance beyond those limits is not failure but poor leadership planning.

Strategy #7: Reduce or eliminate unnecessary meetings
Meetings can be hard to schedule. Getting things on people’s calendars can be a challenge. We have often heard “it takes as much time to schedule a meeting as to hold the meetings since no one wants to change their calendar.” Ask what can be done to make sure all meetings are value added. Leaders should not agree to attend a meeting without a clear understanding of why it needs to be held, its agenda, and the anticipated results it hopes to achieve. Ask yourself, is this meeting really necessary?

Take the next step
What are you prepared to do to take control of your time and leverage it to advance your goals? The landscape of higher education is changing fast and there is not a moment to lose in getting ready for it. I invite you to contact me to learn more.