Five Habits for Senior Executives

Years ago I coached a new manager who was frustrated by the amount of time he spent in meetings. “I don’t have any time to do my real work!” he said.

I walked him through an exercise. On the bottom half of a whiteboard, we brainstormed all his previous individual contributor work, the things he considered to be real work. On the top half we wrote down a managers’ tasks – which included things like planning, giving feedback, leading meetings, and helping people set goals. I pointed to the top of the whiteboard and said, “That’s real work. You need to recognize that your ‘real work’ has changed.”

A similar transition happens when someone moves into a senior executive role: many of the things they used to spend time on are not what they need to be doing now. Being a senior executive is different from being a middle manager, and it’s different from being a more junior executive. There are changes in the scope and impact of your work that require you to do new things.

Here are five key habits that become increasingly important the more senior you become:

1. Find time for strategic thinking

Finding time for strategic thinking becomes more and more essential as you move up. Here are a couple ways to do this:

  • Dedicate an hour a week for “thinking time.” When Secretary of State George Shultz was in office, he spent an hour each week in a quiet room with just a pen and paper. This let him reflect on the most important big-picture issues that might otherwise escape his focused attention. Use this time to reflect on questions like, “How clear is our vision and how well am I communicating it?” “What are the most critical tasks for my leadership team?” or even, “What should we stop doing?”
  • Spend time each week thinking about your time. Review your most important priorities and map time into your calendar to accomplish them. Remove yourself from less important meetings and find ways to delegate more. One client I worked with was able to stop working weekends just through this practice.

Scheduling time explicitly for strategic thinking and maximizing your time will substantially increase your impact.

2. Watch your words

The further up you go on the org chart, the more powerful your words become. Newer senior executives are sometimes surprised when even their stray comments result in teams jumping into action.

In Senior Leadership Teams: What it Takes to Make Them Great, the authors tell the story of Len Stanton, who was brought in as CEO to turn around a large holding company. Len announced a new strategy and a new purpose for his team: they would change their focus from acquisitions to becoming a “world class operating company.”

Functional heads assumed that meant the company would be doing a lot more operational work centralized through the corporate office–so they quickly increased corporate staff from 25 to over 400. Meanwhile, division leaders thought they would be in charge of improving operations. A big fight erupted between the two groups.

It’s crucial to be thoughtful about your words. Take time to consider your audience and make sure your messages are as clear and precise as possible. Most senior leaders need to put more time and effort into “over-communicating;” that is, communicating things more fully and more often than they might feel is necessary. And if you’re just thinking out loud, flag it: “I’m just brainstorming right now.”

Here’s another angle on this: as a senior executive, the burden is on you to create a culture where people are comfortable asking you follow-up questions and getting more clarity from you. That way, if you’re not totally clear, you can trust your team to push for the clarity they need before acting. It helps to express genuine gratitude when you get follow-up questions: “I really appreciate you asking; let me unpack this a little more.”

3. Take care of yourself

This is not just a “nice to have” leadership capability, it’s foundational. Taking care of yourself is just as important as other critical leadership skills like communicating an inspiring vision, setting the right strategy, and empowering your team.

Healthy routines can yield big results in terms of increased energy and productivity. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella rolls out of bed and puts on his running shoes first thing every morning, ensuring that exercise is a habit he doesn’t miss. If you’re overloaded, I recommend starting with simple changes in your routine. For example, scheduling more walking meetings, drinking more water, and making small improvements to your diet. See our post on stress management and resilience, which is based on Harvard Medical School’s recommendations for self-care.

Self-compassion is an often-overlooked aspect of self-care. Some senior leaders have unrelentingly high expectations of themselves. They may (wrongly) believe that others are much more confident than they are. But most executives do things they haven’t done before all the time, and even very seasoned leaders go through interior struggles that aren’t publicly visible. Self-compassion can help you be more accepting and more resilient during challenging times.

To work on this, start by observing your own internal dialogue. That is, be aware of how you frame what you say to yourself. See if you can catch yourself being less than compassionate and instead say something more supportive or positive. There are times when you may need to change your expectations of yourself in, for example, particularly complex and difficult situations. It’s important to acknowledge the reality of having to make harder choices in more challenging circumstances. Exercising self-compassion gives you a more positive mental framework for navigating complexity.

Also, don’t be afraid to spend some money on yourself and your family. This can mean anything from hiring a personal trainer, to getting regular massages, or paying for additional services to make life easier at home. The most balanced senior leaders I know have a lot of professional help at home. See our post on helping others help you.

4. Be deliberate about meeting attendance

Another way to take control over your time is to be strategic about what meetings you attend. In some companies, leaders find their calendars flooded with meetings they did not initiate. As you move up and the company grows, the landscape of which meetings you ought to attend should change.

You may be able to withdraw from certain meetings and have a lieutenant attend in your place. Or there may be meetings you can just stop attending. Your assistant can help. I have clients who do a meeting audit in partnership with their assistant and develop a clear agreement on what kinds of meetings should be accepted or declined. Just be careful to consider unintended consequences as you withdraw from meetings.

5. Trust your instincts

Senior leaders make complex decisions with far-reaching consequences and varied degrees of data available to help inform them. Data is crucial for decision making.

But, as a senior executive, you won’t be able to get all the data you may want, or are accustomed to, for decisions. This can be especially hard for highly analytical thinkers. In more junior roles, they may have used rigorous analysis of data to come up with great decisions again and again.

One scientist I worked with was accustomed to reviewing all the literature on a topic before making a decision. At a more senior level, however, she simply didn’t have time to do a deep dive into every topic. Moreover, she no longer needed to. Her extensive experience had created in her a finely tuned gut, which she increasingly learned to rely on to speed up decision-making, especially for less critical issues. She could save her analytical prowess for bigger decisions that warranted more energy.

If you’re making decisions in areas where you have substantial experience, trust your instincts more. In those cases, instinct or intuition can be a shortcut to a good decision.

“Yes,” you say, “but I now oversee several areas I know very little about. What about those?” If you’re making decisions in areas where you have limited experience, instinct may not be as reliable a guide. You may need to rely more heavily on the people under you (assuming they’re seasoned) or bring in outside expertise where relevant.

No executive is an island

These five habits are largely things you do on your own. No leader operates in isolation and your own habits will only take you so far if you’re not also managing your team and peer relationships effectively. For more, see our post on How Senior Leaders Work With Teams.