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Blaire Palmer

That People Thing

Author, speaker, agent provocateur for senior leaders and their teams

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Leaders are doing way too much and it’s all the wrong stuff


An HRD I know hangs out at reception from 7.55 in the morning in the hope that she will catch her CEO as he arrives. The walk between his car and his office door is the only opportunity for them to speak. 

Maybe you’re thinking this is rather a good idea and will start hovering in the lobby tomorrow. Or maybe you’re like the CEO in this scenario, jealous that this guy isn’t already on the phone when he exits his car. 

The days when senior leaders had such an open diary that they had time for a round of golf mid-week, or simply time to think, are gone. 

The implication is that if you’ve got time you must be neglecting your work. If, however, you’re so busy no one can get in to your diary, you must be really successful. Well done you. 

According to research published in Harvard Business Review 62% of high-earning individuals work more than 50 hours a week, 35% work more than 60 hours a week and 10% work more than 80 hours a week. We’re all very, very busy. 

But what are we so busy doing? And is it making any difference?  

There is, in fact, plenty of evidence that long hours don’t actually lead to greater productivity. As long ago as the First World War research in to workers at a munitions factory showed that productivity after a 70-hour week was no higher than when people worked for 56 hours. Having a rest day (e.g. Sunday) was also shown to be important. Those workers who did 48 hours without a complete day off each week were less productive than those who did 48 hours with a rest day. And yet business has been ignoring such correlations for 100 years. 

We act as though we are paid by the hour and that our value comes from being busy. But is that true? 

Well, in an industrial company, time does equal productivity. If a worker steps away from their station for lunch, their company loses an hour’s worth of them putting munitions in to boxes. How busy they are and how many hours they do (up to a point as shown in the research from the munitions factory) does equate to their value. 

But if you work in the service sector, in a support function or in management, this doesn’t apply. Your value lies in how many problems you can solve, how many great ideas you can have, how much progress you can make (or how much progress you can enable other people to make) to move the company towards its ambitions. 

Yet almost everything about the way companies are run keeps people so busy that it is impossible for them to be valuable. We sit at our desks opening and closing emails as if we are packing boxes. The more emails we reply to in a day the more productive we feel. 

The same applies to most other activities that fill the diary. Senior managers spend approximately 37% of time in meetings. And yet, according to research my company commissioned, the vast majority of those managers feel most of that is wasted and contributes nothing to the company. Frankly you may as well be sorting out your sock drawer for all the value you’re creating - although you may not be able to convince your boss to see it that way.

This is clearly a flawed state of affairs. 

Forward-thinking businesses are experimenting with revolutionary ideas about how to structure and organise their company to release as much brainpower as possible. They are killing the working hours culture, taking out layers of management, putting wheels on desks so people can relocate to sit with whoever they need to sit with, introducing results only environments where it matters not how long you sat in meetings, only whether you delivered to outcome required. 

It is surely a leader’s job to question what’s been taken for granted for the last 250 years about how companies are run. After all, are people at their most imaginative when they are sitting in their cubicle or are they at their most imaginative when they are walking and talking with colleagues in the park? Do problems get solved at their root cause in a stuffy meeting room during the 10 minutes allocated to a topic in an over-packed agenda? Or do they get solved when there is time to mull them over with glass of wine? 

Maybe a revolutionary re-think is a bit radical for you just at this moment (especially as you’ve got all those emails to wade through). But perhaps you concede that as long as you behave as if you are running a munitions factory – measuring people by inputs rather than outputs, judging your performance by how rammed your diary is as opposed to how much time you spend thinking and imagining with colleagues - you create an organisation that operates like a munitions factory with everyone focused on box-packing activities like how many emails they can clear and how many reports they can produce and not on the impact they are having on the customer or the bottom line. 

If what we need of employees is their brainpower, the job of leaders should be to find ways to ensure as much of that brainpower is released as possible. It’s solving this problem that should be taking up most of your time, energy and brain-space. That’s what will make you a leader, rather than just the manager of a broken system. 

Yes, leaders can continue to add their 70 hours to the total hours worked in the company each week by rolling their sleeves up and getting stuck in to munitions packing. But that’s nothing compared to what they can contribute if they can work out how to unleash the intelligence and creativity of their people. That’s a job that’s really worth spending some time on. 

One Response

  1. Only just found this article
    Only just found this article – love it! I’ve shared on face book and added one real emphasis I think is vital – making time for reflection and learning from experience. Let’s encourage proper reviewing of projects, tasks and experiences before bouncing into the next, to ensure that learning is observed and processed.

Author Profile Picture
Blaire Palmer

Author, speaker, agent provocateur for senior leaders and their teams

Read more from Blaire Palmer

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