Taking Time to Think The Irony of Bill Gates’ Legacy

By Timothy Ph.D.

Sep. 22, 2006

Bill Gates is one of the principal architects of the “information revolution,” developing products that have transformed the way we conduct our personal and professional lives by giving us instant and immediate access to the people and information we interact with at home and at work.

    That said, one of his key approaches to management, and one of the underlying reasons for his overall success, is his ability to take some time to step away from the immediate and focus on the longer term during a ritual he calls “Think Week.”

    Since the 1980s, Gates has gone into seclusion twice a year and devoted seven straight days to reading white papers from associates, pondering solutions to company challenges and, most important, thinking in an uncluttered environment. It is ironic that the man who has played such a major role in catapulting the rest of us into an age of nonstop access recognizes the value of being away from the rigors and distractions of the office in order to have uninterrupted time to look at the bigger picture.

    Today’s “on-demand” culture enmeshes us in the quick fix, the executive summary and instantaneous feedback. Technological advancements such as the Internet, e-mail, PDAs, Blackberries and cell phones that have improved our efficiency in doing business have at the same time resulted in a 24-hour business cycle and information overload. As the dissemination of information has become quicker and easier, we are all faced with a greater number of decisions accompanied by accelerated turn-around times.

    But in the race to deal with the minute-to-minute, the longer term can suffer. Many successful CEOs have found that pausing periodically for a breath of fresh air and a broader perspective is critical to effective leadership in business. Big thoughts, reinvention and career growth come not only from embracing all the benefits of technology, but also from finding the time away from the office and daily pressures. The challenge of finding this balance, even if it is for only a short period of time each quarter or year, can be daunting to people, especially during critical stages of their careers when they may need it the most.

    Business schools have long recognized the need to provide an oasis where executives can develop important strategic ideas and grow their own leadership skills. And corporations such as Novartis International AG have for many years made it a priority to send executives at various levels of management to participate in executive education programs. Here they step outside their daily experience for a period of time to engage with peers, often representing other industries, organizations and cultures, and to look broadly and in depth at ideas, approaches and issues that are shaping business around the world.

    Looking back on his own experience at Harvard Business School, Novartis chairman and CEO Dan Vasella said that “the stimulating learning experience I had in executive education enhanced my desire for lifelong learning—a concept that has had a strong rejuvenating impact on me personally and a positive effect on my company’s competitiveness.”

    My research has shown that, beyond a formal classroom experience, executives can try the “Stop, Look and Listen” approach for re-energizing their thought process immediately:

  • Stop.
    For a designated period of time, process less information than usual. Since the typical executive has to make decisions about a range of topics, breadth can predominate over depth. Commit yourself to taking a long weekend or even a week without answering your Blackberry, so that you can focus more on topics you want to know more about and understand better.
  • Look.
    Put yourself in new surroundings. Take a class, rent a secluded cottage or take a walk on the beach to extend your view beyond the confines of your office.
  • Listen.
    For at least a few times during the year, get out of your peer group of usual contacts–your management team, advisors, directors–and listen carefully to some fresh voices. For example, commit to subscribing to a local speaker series so that you can listen to people in fields outside your expertise.

    Time to grow and reflect should not be a luxury in today’s business environment. While a “Think Week” may be a challenge to schedule, it is imperative for executives to make the commitment to career-long learning, growth and strategic thinking in order to remain optimally competent, creative, inspired and, ultimately, successful. Inform your colleagues, your employees and your board. Don’t forget to schedule it in your PDA. Then go for it. Time is a more important commodity than ever; don’t let the tyranny of today’s technologies take it away.

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