Why you are paid to think, as well as do

20 February 2015 -

Think notdo

Is working relentlessly actually productive? We look at the importance of leadership styles that balance hard toil with rigorous thought processes

Rebecca Burn-Callander


All the mourners at Steve Jobs’ memorial service were presented with a gift. But it wasn’t the latest iPhone, iPod or iPad. It was a small box containing a copy of Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramhansa Yogananda’s spiritual memoir. It was a fitting gift from a man who claimed to have some of his best ideas after meditating. Indeed, Jobs once said that, if he hadn’t founded Apple, he would have been a Zen monk.

For many leaders, having space and time to think is crucial to their success and a core aspect of their leadership styles. And this goes beyond pure meditation. Mindfulness, the act of being completely present in the moment, not worrying about the past or the future, is currently in vogue. Google’s 70-20-10 rule, which prescribes that staff must spend 70% of their time on core business, 20% on related tasks and 10% thinking about something completely unrelated, has caught on like wildfire among many innovative companies.

And yet, there is a disconnect. In 2012, serial entrepreneur Shaa Wasmund published her first book, Stop Talking, Start Doing: A kick in the pants in six parts. It was the bestselling business book in WHSmith for 14 months, smashing all previous records. The key message in this tome was that, to be successful, business leaders needed to act first, think later.

Lawrie Philpott is not convinced. Philpott, the founder of Philpott Black, is a management consultant with more than 25 years’ experience advising leaders on how to find the right balance between thinking and doing. He believes that, contrary to Wasmund’s call to arms, it is essential to devote time to strategy, thought and review.

An invisible art or a waste of time?

“A leader has 2,500 hours a year available to work,” he explains. “And a significant part of a leader’s role – and what they are paid for – is to think. It is therefore entirely legitimate for a leader to spend time sitting looking out of the window, thinking. Too often, thinking is seen as being idle or lazy. To be an effective leader requires the confidence to do the so-called ‘invisible work’ of thinking.”

Of course, while staring out of the window may involve considerable cognitive labour, it’s tough to explain to one’s colleagues. “Dealing with minutiae gives the appearance of being busy,” admits Philpott. “But being busy masks the fact that a leader can easily be busy on the wrong things.”

The importance of being seen to be working is not a new thing: presenteeism has existed since the dawn of the modern office. But Harvard Business School’s Teresa Amabile, who has been conducting a huge study of work and creativity, believes that the global recession has exacerbated the problem.

“Contemporary organisational atmospheres resemble assembly lines more than hotbeds of creativity,” she says. “Too often, the imperative is to do the same thing repeatedly, ever faster and more efficiently; reflection, exploration, and intense collaboration become superfluous luxuries.”

Arianna Huffington, founder of online newspaper the Huffington Post, believes that such intensity of labour is ultimately a squeeze on our creative consciousness. A self-confessed workaholic, she rediscovered the benefits of taking breaks after a harsh wake-up call.

“In 2007, in the middle of building the Huffington Post, I fainted from exhaustion,” she recalls. “I hit my head on my desk, I broke my cheekbone and got four stitches on my right eye.”

Since then, Huffington has been determined to sleep eight hours a night, up from three or four, and takes regular breaks. She has also put her money where her mouth is, installing relaxation rooms at her company where weary journalists and designers can go to chill out or take a nap. This is a worthwhile investment, she argues: “If you go into any corporation, with the exception of a few pioneering organisations, you see people burned out and exhausted and, as a result, making terrible decisions.”

Of course, being active doesn’t automatically mean you aren’t paying attention or strategising. Countless leaders have claimed that spending time on the frontline, taking customer-service calls, making sales, or even delivering goods, can give a unique insight into how a business needs to be improved. Channel 4 has even dedicated a programme to the practice, sending company bosses down to the coalface in Undercover Boss.

Finding a balance

But given the average package for a UK chief executive is £215,879 a year, according to CMI and XpertHR, allowing the company boss to spend a significant portion of their time undertaking more menial roles doesn’t make any financial sense. We’re talking one expensive delivery boy. After all, the average telesales role pays £24,777, according to the latest data from Reed, while a delivery van driver earns just £14,665, finds TotalJobs.

So, if giving leaders the time to think is essential, how much thinking time is enough? According to Philpott, leaders should be aiming for a 50:50 ratio between thinking and doing. “But there is no need for absolute rigidity,” he adds. “There might be times when the balance is 60:40, for good reasons. The important thing is for the leader to understand the required balance and where it needs to be at any one time.”

Ultimately, leaders must find what works for them. But, before getting bogged down in all the technicalities of running a company, make sure that you are looking after and engaging your most powerful business tool – your mind.

Cogito ergo facio (I think, therefore I do)

Former boss of General Electric Jack Welch would spend an hour a day absorbed in “looking out of the window time”.

Microsoft’s Bill Gates used to take two “think weeks” a year when he would lock himself in a cottage in the middle of nowhere.

Marc Benioff, the charismatic chief executive of SalesForce.com (the cloudbased accounting company that turned over more than $3 billion in 2012), is also a fan. “Meditation is a major part of my life,” he says.

Ronald Reagan was a vocal champion of finding the best people and letting them get on with it. Although a vociferous reader and thinker, he played up to his “lazy” image. “It’s true that hard work never killed anyone,” he once said. “But I figured, why take the chance?”

Facio ergo sum (I do, therefore I am)

Marissa Meyer famously works gruelling hours at Yahoo!, putting in up to 130 hours a week and sleeping just four hours a night.

Jack Dorsey spends a good eight to ten hours at Twitter and another eight to ten hours at his financial startup Square every day. That’s nearly 20 hours a day at work.

Billionaire Donald Trump claims that the secret to his success is sleeping for only three or four hours a night. It’s the only way to get ahead of the competition, he argues: “How does somebody that’s sleeping 12 and 14 hours a day compete with someone that’s sleeping three or four?”

“Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.” So said Thomas Edison, inventor and workaholic. By the time of his death, Edison had filed 1,093 US patents.

Google’s 70-20-10 rule

70% of staff time spent on core business

20% on related tasks

10% thinking about something completely unrelated

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