Time is the scarcest of all professional resources, yet we never seem to get enough of it. A recent conversation with a friend and advisor helped me understand that one of my greatest professional strengths and joys might be exacerbating my time problem.
Earlier in my career, success was doing the right thing in a challenging situation. Then later on success becam: me, my team, or my organization doing the right thing.
As my span of responsibility has grown, I cannot do everything and I can’t be – and shouldn’t be – involved in every step from here to there. Obvious enough. So, outside of work that’s on my plate, I focus my energies on helping those around me solve problems. I love doing this and I’m generally pretty good at it, which makes it both is intellectually and emotionally rewarding. I get to problem-solve (fun!) and help a colleague (fun! fun!). Bingo!
The helpful but very sobering insight is that my enjoyment and capacity at this kind of problem-solving might not be the right end-game. Because it is so rewarding and because the outcomes are (often) positive – both practically and emotionally – have I created a learned response and, like the proverbial bull seeing a waving red cloth, do I, when presented with a situation in which I might be helpful, just jump in and help?
Why might this be a bad thing?
The suggestion was that consistently helping to solve a set of problems keeps me in the business (forever) of being involved in helping solve those sorts of problems – without ever asking the question: what sort of problems do I want, in the long run, to be in the business of solving? For example, it could be that I always want to have a role to play in key hiring decisions or important strategic choices, but is there another set of situations that other people are better equipped and better positioned to resolve in the long term?
If so, when I’m presented with a cool, fun, challenging and interesting situation, the first question I should ask myself isn’t “what should we do here?” but rather “is this the kind of problem I should be in the business of helping solve in the long term?” If it is, great. If not, how would I act differently?
Whenever I’m looking for advice about a tough situation, working through the solution with a respected colleague teaches me something. But that process of osmosis could be accelerated by a much more explicit, meta-conversation about how I’m engaging with the problem and how my more experienced colleague is coming up with different and better approaches and solutions to that same problem.
That’s the conversation I suspect I need to be having more often.
Harder, requiring different muscles, and, toughest of all, forcing me to look at all that great short-term feedback I’m getting and say: this thing that I love doing might just be part of the reason I have too little time on my hands.