Executives should adopt habits of the successful

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Mention the word “habit” and people generally think of addictions or bad behaviors. Change the word to “disciplines” and negative imagines of drudgery and hard work generally come to mind. But anyone who has ever raised children knows the positive value in developing “constant inclinations to act in a particular way, acquired through repetition over a long period of time” (the definition of habit). Just like children, executives need habits as well — repeatable, conscious and unconscious behaviors that form the foundation for excellence in leadership, management, and company performance. Here is a short list of executive habits that I have seen confirmed in the lives of great business executives.

The habit of “think time.” Most leaders can’t avoid being involved in operational issues, especially as the size of the enterprise decreases. But for organizations of any size, its leaders must develop the habit of protecting think time so that the operational doesn’t completely crowd out the strategic (or said another way, so that the urgent doesn’t crowd out the important). Think time can come in small 15-minute snatches, hour-long walks, half-day away-from-the-office breaks, and multi-day retreats. Whatever the length of time, it takes discipline for the executive to regularly schedule think-breaks and do everything in his or her power to protect them.

The habit of one-to-ones. After 30 years of managing organizations and people, I am convinced that one of the most important commitments you can make to people is the dedication to regular one-to-one appointments. We say that people are our most important asset, and then we ignore them for long stretches of time. People want to be heard, to discuss their ideas, to be given feedback, to be encouraged and empowered. These are the focus of a regular weekly or monthly one-to-one. The executive habit is formed when you commit to scheduling your one-to-ones on an appropriate frequency and guarding them jealously.

The habit of employee feedback. The two-way process of employee feedback has a number of aspects. There is performance feedback that we give employees. Then there is feedback we receive from employees concerning their opinions or concerns regarding company policies. Employees also want to share what they are hearing from the customers. Verne Harnish estimates that recurrent customer and employee hassles cost the employees of a typical company 40 percent of their time, not to mention the cost of lost customers and revenues. The discipline to giving and receiving employee feedback involves an executive’s commitment to regular processes of performance reviews, customer data collection, response systems and progress reviews. If you could “de-hassle” your employees and save them a portion of that 40 percent wasted time, wouldn’t it be worth it?

The habit of metric-driven analysis. In business, the manager’s job is in many ways fairly straightforward: Read the trail signs and take action to make the company more successful. These signs are variously referred to as key performance indicators (or KPIs), metrics, a balanced scorecard, or an executive dashboard. When you identify, measure and use key performance and financial information, you focus and motivate attention on the right things: what is important, strategic, or critical for the company’s success. No matter what level of leadership you are at, you should have your own KPIs that summarize the scope of your responsibilities.

The habit of focus. In my experience, there are two things that every leader hates: to set aside good ideas, and to feel like we are repeating ourselves. Innovative businesses are full of good ideas, but not every brainstorm is worth pursuing. It takes discipline and focus to master doing the right things, according to Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus in Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge. And when we have identified that focus, we need to sound like a broken record by repeating it over and over again. The executive discipline of focus comes in resisting the “shinny new object” syndrome and in becoming an annoying advocate for focus.

Kent Wilson, Ph.D., is a business practitioner and nonprofit leadership specialist. He facilitates high-value CEO peer advisory groups and coaches each member with Vistage International in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at kent.wilson@vistage.com.