My absence from this blog must be noticeable, at the least it is for me. My schedule has been fairly arduous of late and not afforded me the time to share my musing and insights with you. Good news is that our Company global transformation effort, which I am leading is well underway and starting to deliver concrete results. It is good to see when long term planning and vision of how things will work, start actually happening and things start falling into place. However, the time requirements have been demanding and that’s why I decided to take a pause with my team.
My monthly schedule sees me on a flight across the Atlantic every three weeks. Great for the air-miles and future free flights, however not so great when it comes to restaurant food and adjusting to time zones.
My weekly schedule is packed with ongoing meetings with the executive sponsors of each of the work-streams we have stood up and which each represent a functional division in our global company; with the leaders of each transformation effort; with our regional business leaders and a multitude of meetings with my team; the communications department to monitor our ongoing internal and external communication efforts; the finance team, to make sure the transformation changes are reflected correctly in the finance systems and operating model; the HR team to make sure all the people aspects of the transformation are being considered and managed and the CEO, as I keep him up to speed with the ebbs and flows of the transformation effort.
My daily schedule sees me up at 7am, dressing our two young kids and making sure they eat while showering and getting ready myself. School drop off for the oldest is from 8.20 am to 8.30 am and his school is a 5-minute drive from the apartment.
The youngest is in a school which opens their doors for drop off from 8.45am to 9am. It is a 10 minute drive, in the morning traffic, from the eldest’s school, but the timing is not great and means that I only get into work somewhere between 9.15-9.30am.
Then it is a flurry of individual and team meetings before our daily team touchpoint at 2pm everyday, which includes the teams on both sides of the Atlantic and then it starts again in the afternoon until the work day ends around 7 to 7.30pm. Then back home by 7.30- 8pm, usually just after the kids finish dinner, and enough time for some games, discussions and reading before they drop into bed around 9pm.
It is a grueling agenda, not just because of the daily intensity, but rather more because of the multitude of moving parts, competing egos, varying levels of competency in the executive ranks and the plethora of unknowns that keep popping up and need to be dealt with.
And you wonder why I want to retire in 3 years!?
I had a taste of early retirement earlier in my life and it was an amazing time for me. However, I felt I wanted more and so went back to a career. I then got close and almost retired a few years ago before doubling down on a bigger apartment in a better neighborhood so the kids could get an amazing bilingual education at one of the best schools in the country. But that’s a whole other story. The point of this article is to discuss the virtues of taking a pause.
Corporate cultures are the stuff born out of a myriad of different influences, from the top CEO office, through the principal country of operation to the values on the wall and the people in key leadership roles, but one thing is fairly consistent in a lot of companies I know: the drive to be busy.
Our days start early, and they end late, we rush from one meeting to another, barely able to follow the conversation and get into some depth on the subject when the hour is up, and we skirt off to another meeting on a completely different subject.
When we aren’t in group meetings, we are in talking to team-mates or co-workers lightly discussing various subjects or typing up PowerPoint presentations, filling in Excel sheets or pouring over reports from odd-sounding systems we hardly know.
While this might not be the day to day of everyone reading this blog, it definitely is for millions of people around the world.
But the question that we need to ask when our life is like this is “When do we take time to think?”
When do we take time to contemplate our work, how efficient we are being, how focused we are on the right priorities, how relevant our work is to the goals of our organization?
Throughout my career, I always ask the question “Why are you doing this task?” and more often than not the response is “because I was told to do to it.” And when you drive further, the original reason for the task has often morphed in such a way that the current ask is no longer adapted and no longer efficient. However, because we never take the time to step back and reflect on what we do, we often miss these unique instances to change what we do.
The corporate illusion of being busy and not seeing the forest for the trees
Thomas Cook was founded in 1841 and was originally a transport company, ferrying people by rail before transforming quickly in a touring company. Over time the company grew larger and more prosperous, taking advantage of the growing tourism industry.
With revenues of over 15 billion dollars, it was extremely profitable. The main components of the business, which I knew intimately, albeit indirectly, was branded travel agencies, those small shops where one would go book a trip, from air travel, to hotel accommodation and even insurance. They also owned and operated a number of branded resort destinations, while working closely with hotel groups across the world. They also owned and operated 100 aircraft, moving their clients from home to holiday and back again.
At their peak they employed over 30.000 people. Their CEO, Peter Fankhauser, had a significant experience in travel and tourism working previously for Kuoni, an upmarket tour package operator and for an airline. In 2014 his arrival made sense as he knew the industries in which Thomas Cook operated.
And what better person to keep a company moving along the same trajectory than somebody who has done the same thing for someone else?
Peter Fankhauser had a salary of over $1 million, with bonuses and stock options that more than tripled that mount annually. He was well paid because he had the right experience and the Company need that.
Thomas Cook went bankrupt in September 2019.
Somehow this highly paid CEO with experience in the same industries, with an intimate knowledge of how Thomas Cook worked and his smart executive team didn’t see that consumers wanted cheap flights on low cost airlines, unique experiences in unique destinations and wanted to book online and build their own packages rather than have it fed up to them by a travel agency.
How did that happen? How did they not see it? Surely they were busy working on it?
I dare to say that no, they weren’t “working” on it. They were more likely than not keeping themselves busy by running their company the way they knew how, given the experience they had until that date in similar industries.
Busy is the new stupid and busy doesn’t allow you the time to stop and reflect on the things which are far more important. Looking for the signs of changing times, of changing consumers, of changing business models and of threats to your current company and industry.
It is hard to transform a company from one business model to another. But sometimes it can be done leading to extraordinary results.
Netflix started as mail order DVD company.
Taking a team pause
Yesterday, I took a pause with my central team. We took only 3 hours out of one day. The experience was very fulfilling, as not only did it allow us to go through the key success factors of our team, how we have performed to date on our objectives, how far we have come in our transformation effort and what things we can do to get better, it also brought us closer as a group of individuals by helping us connect and understand each other better.
Throughout the year, I always keep the team and my own objectives in the back of my mind. Beyond the actual performance review cycles, I never formally go through the objectives. Yesterday’s pause afforded me that opportunity and it gave the team full clarity on all the great things we have accomplished together and all the things we still have to do.
We also spoke about how we are feeling on our transformation journey. Worried, concerned, happy, content, angry. It all came up and we were able to talk through each of them to get a better understanding of how each of us are seeing the program.
We also discussed the dangers of being busy all the time and not noticing the dead ends we could go down or the wrong turns.
The most interesting conversation was about taking time as individuals in our busy days to also stop and think rather than just doing all the time.
Do you ever do this?
With your team, by yourself?
Think about how often in your busy day (yes I think I can correctly assume everyone is busy by their own definitions) you take a break to reflect on whether you are on the right track or not. To think about the next steps, your next move and the path to your own success.
Last week, I played chess with my 8-year old. Usually our games are fairly drawn out as we both think about our next moves. To date, he has been a far quicker player. He thinks less about his next moves and charges into the game. I always win when he does that.
This time was different. Maybe because he has been playing chess at school with a chess grand-master or maybe it was because I changed tactics and showed him what a charging game looked like.
I told him from the start that I was just going to attack and only think about my next move. I was going to play in a way where I didn’t need to think about 2 or 3 moves ahead and how he would possibly react to those 2 to 3 moves ahead.
In other words, I was going to take the time to reflect and think about what I was doing, beyond the immediate next move.
The result was fascinating.
The game started with me quickly moving my pieces up the board and immediately taking my rook and bishops out on a hunt. The queen followed suit right thereafter.
My son immediately started playing the slow game. Taking his time to shift his pieces around and protect the middle of the board.
I launched into attack mode, taking everything I could.
And as it started, I quickly pulled ahead in pieces, ripping up his pawns and ploughing toward a rapid check of his King.
Success was sweet but short-lived.
It slowly started to fall apart.
He had taken his time moving his pieces into defendable battle positions and he then methodically started picking me off.
I could have changed my tactic and started thinking but I didn’t want to. I wanted to prove my point, so I purposely didn’t think about my next move.
If I saw an opportunity, I took it, blasting forward with a pawn to make it a queen. One square away he swiftly took my off the board with his castle and left me exposed on the left side of the board, allowing his pawn to make it to the other end and become a queen piece.
Slowly he whittled me down to just my king and checkmated me.
He smiled, bounded up and ran off to see his brother.
I’m not sure he saw the lesson – but it proved it to me.
Taking time to evaluate where you are, where you are going and how you intend to get there is far more powerful than charging forward, kicking ass and taking names. The latter approach can work for a moment, which can last several days, weeks or months, but it doesn’t work in the long run.
Yes, you can say this is just a game and I would respond that it is a microcosm of what life is today. I would say that my son has never beat me (or very rarely) when I play the thoughtful game.
In chess, like in life, thinking just about your next move doesn’t cut it. You need to think about the long game.
And the only way you can do that is by taking the time to reflect – by taking a pause.
If you are in constant movement, in constant attack, you’ll never be able to see the destination (even though you may have it in mind). You’ll be quickly blinded by the high of your next move. And that will be your downfall when it comes to attaining your ultimate destination.
So, do yourself a favor: Stop being busy, as busy is the new stupid.
Take time off from your day, from your week, from your life to reflect on where you are, what got you there and what the next steps are.
Do the same if you have a team. Reflective thinking in a team can also be extremely powerful.
Long term planning and building a vision of how things should work are powerful foundations on which to build sustainable success.