He thanked his Lucky Stars there'd never be another year like the last. The worst was over, he reckoned, and there'd be more settled times ahead, after too much disruption and stress in the organisation for far too long and too much change far too rapidly. It was as much a prayer as it was an expression of relief.

I asked, "Are you sure of that . . ? No extreme pressure, crises, or severe strain in the year ahead . . ?" and the penny soon dropped. He acknowledged that ever since he first became a senior manager, he'd begun each year with a sense of release that the overwhelm and burn-out experienced before the holidays was over and unlikely to be re-experienced. No more unwelcome restructurings, fiscal challenges, staff shortages and discontent, major disruptions to planning, serious personal health issues arising from stress, and other unforseen crises. As we say in New Zealand, "Yeah, right!"

Whether it's caused by avoidance, denial, misplaced optimism or all of these, this common tendency inhibits a great deal of individual and organizational growth. Unless we carefully reflect on what happens both "out there" and "in here" during challenges and then follow-through on the insights we receive at the time, we miss the creative opportunities for learning and change they offer.

Five of six business leaders I worked with this January through February recognised the same phenomenon in their own working lives. Having barely scraped through painfully challenging times, they were inclined to play down the desperation of those times and to abandon their resolutions to avoid recurrences through improving their priority-management and planning, leadership, relationship-management, crisis and conflict management practices. "It's OK", they'd reassured themselves, "things will never be as bad again." Whatever.

I easily recognise this pattern in others because it's how I managed my own life and work until I realised how pointlessly unproductive it is. A friend and sometimes mentor I used to meet annually had said to me, "Tom, do you realise how many years you've been telling me that although it's been challenging, it's all about to settle down shortly?" Some very useful insights followed, one of which went something like this:

It's difficult to see the complete picture when you're inside the frame. It's easy to get caught up in pushing for results without balancing attention to the best methods for getting them until it becomes difficult to extricate ourselves from inefficient busyness. Sometimes, the hardest thing to do is to choose what really matters. We attend to unimportant things, leaving more vital priorities until they become overwhelmingly urgent and important. We know or suspect we're on the wrong track but forge ahead anyway.

We rationalise that we are too busy to change or even pause for reflection and don't learn sufficiently from our experiences. Consequently we fail to discover and use better approaches. We worker harder, not smarter.

Often enough, all it takes to replace these self-defeating patterns with increased objectivity, enhanced self-perception and wiser choices, is a guide, tutor, coach or mentor who asks timely questions and offers frameworks to support self-development. We often fail to engage in this step.

Between every event and our response to it there is a space within which we can make choices. Very many people ensure that gap is very small, non-existent or easily overlooked. They overload and stress themselves unnecessarily by, for example, arranging each working day with non-stop activity such as wall-to-wall meetings. If those meetings are themselves full of unfocused, improvised rather than methodical activities which create more problems than they solve (as many meetings are) . . . well, you get the picture.

We may prefer to say, "I couldn't have chosen differently . . . I had to act as I did . . . I was completely tied up . . . I wasn't free to do things differently . . ." but these are excuses that amount to "I chose to act as I did." Most of us are not prisoners and none of us is compelled to do anything. If our behaviors disallow reflection and thoughtful new choices, we'll eventually face challenges that are difficult or impossible to work through. We must understand our own part in creating and perpetuating our own problems: therein lies the freedom to bring about change.

If you recognize that year after year you've been "running" the same basic scenario of too many demands, too many fires to put out and too many last-minute crises to be averted with too little time . . . work out why you don't want to change; or work out why, when you say that you do want to change, you don't really. What is your personal investment in ensuring that things remain the same?

Is perpetual busyness and only-just-managing-to-stay-on-top-through-prodigious-personal-effort-and-self-sacrifice a Good Look for you and your ego? Does perpetual busyness help justify or excuse your not attending to other important responsibilities in your life? Have you some investment in being a victim-of-circumstances ("I'd really like to be different and I would if I could but it's just not possible, I have such pressures and responsibilities and demands on me . . .")?

In my support of business and other organisation leaders, I keep re-discovering that very many of their challenges could have been minimized or avoided if they'd created more frequent times for reflection. It's common sense. When they finally do pause and are helped to study and learn from their experiences, they keep re-discovering the wisdom of the following three basic rules of engagement for leaders and managers, which are not common practice:

1. Understand the importance of and what it means to balance attention to (1) the organisation's Primary Task (what it must do in order to stay in alive and in business) with (2) developing individual capacity (including your own) and (3) developing collective capacity for the Primary Task. Systematically monitor those three areas: follow-up, follow-up, follow-up.

2. Make the methodical development of certain practices for capacity development, organizational imperatives rather than the operational free-choice they tend to be. Practices that should not be left to improvisation and impulsivity include those for problem solving, priority-management, planning and plan-management, decision-making, conflict resolution, and the facilitation of fit-for-purpose meetings. Choose the top three you most need to develop over the course of 12 months, then select and develop the next three.

3. Find sufficient courage and give yourself the permission you need to get coaching and mentoring support. And schedule it regularly and often enough to ensure you keep the ideal-reality gaps minimal. We can all benefit from help and encouragement, irrespective of qualifications, expertise, status and experience.

Research by MetrixGlobal into outcomes of executive coaching, suggests that the effectiveness of coaching far exceeds other approaches to some aspects of personal, team and business development. Their research describes a return on investment of between 529% and 788%!

Copyright 2007 Tom Watkins www.encouragementors.com tom@encouragementors.com

Author's Bio: 

Since 1978 Tom Watkins has specialized in people-management, leadership and facilitation practices, assisting the transfer of practical skills and processes to a wide range of New Zealand organizations.

He has studied in the USA with the Tom Peters Group and in Australia with The Australasian Institute of Socio-Analysis.

Tom has authored a range of well-respected guidebook publications in support of his work. He is widely respected for his compassion for and empathy with others' challenges, and for his ability to transform common sense into common practice. Clients report significant and usefully long-lasting life changes resulting from his work.