Now what? Featured

10:55am EDT October 30, 2001
I know a local CEO who built up a very successful company. His company was profitable, and it had earned a great reputation in his industry. But one day, he reached an entrepreneurial mid-life crisis.

''I'm not having fun anymore,'' he lamented.

His problem, he realized, was that he got so caught up in the details of the day-to-day business that he never took the time to step back to re-energize. Or stretch his mind. Or look out over the next horizon for himself or his company.

He had succeeded, or so he thought, but felt like he had failed. He made lots of money, but he hit the proverbial wall. That's when he stood up and asked, ''Now what?''

And he left the company.

While the time away didn't exactly help his company -- profits sagged without his leadership -- he came back refreshed and full of ideas, newfound purpose and the energy to turn his company around.

''I'm having a lot of fun again,'' he told me recently.

Certainly, this CEO isn't alone. It's our contention that most senior executives fall into the day-to-day trap and can't seem to get out. They don't bother planning. They don't take the time to regroup. They lead by the seats of their pants.

And then they wonder why their companies founder and why their employees don't care and even leave. ''Now what?'' they ask.

'''I don't have time'' becomes the excuse of choice, or ''My company is small, so stepping back is a luxury I can't afford.'' But is it a luxury?

''They may feel like they don't have the time,'' says Bernard Wetzel, Ph.D., a principal of Catalyst Consultants LLC in Pittsburgh, ''It's a very common scenario that people have -- they have more to do than they have the time to do it. But I say, what's the cost of not doing it, of not having a strategy, of not addressing underperformance, of not investing in themselves? Some day, those companies are going to get whacked.''

The staff of SBN Magazine set out to create a special section on off-site meetings and retreats. But we discovered that finding the right places to take managers or other employees is the least of their concerns at a time when many of our readers need coaxing to understand the importance of stepping up, stepping out and stepping away from the day-to-day rigors of running their companies.

90 percent of the big picture?
That's what this special section is all about. As Brien Palmer, a Murrysville-based partner with Interlink Business and president of the nonprofit Council On Realizing Excellence in Management says, ''Senior executives should be spending 90 percent of their time on leadership stuff and only 10 percent on the details. Here's the test of a good leader: He or she can go away for two weeks and not have any problems back at the company.''

Taking that a step further, Palmer contends that, of that 90 percent, 30 percent should be spent dealing with purpose, making sure everybody is heading toward the same, well-defined goal; 30 percent should be spent making sure the processes are in place to help fulfill the purpose efficiently; and the remaining time should be spent developing people, as in coaching, mentoring, advising them.

''If they're not spending 90 percent of their time with the big picture, then they're not doing their job,'' Palmer says.

Instead, they're doing what he calls ''executive supervision.''

Given today's workplace environment, more leaders need to move beyond such supervision and take time to focus on the big picture, which includes leading your employees.

''The whole dynamic of what's going on in the labor force is changing,'' says Rebecca Sohn, senior vice president and general manager of leadership and employee development consultants Lee Hecht Harrison.

She cites several factors driving the change:

  1. There will continue to be key issues surrounding key talent.

  2. Employees have access to more information than ever and often receive it the same time as the CEO.

  3. The free-agent mentality continues to grow.

''Their portability is based on how many skills they can build since there's no longer the concept of a lifetime employee,'' she says. ''The average time at employment is three years and eight months.''

Says Sohn: ''The wake-up call is that good talent is always in demand regardless of the economy. But the only way to keep them is by understanding their value systems. Companies that don't understand that will fail.''

That means spending more time with your employees -- but outside the realm of their day-to-day jobs --and not just regarding mechanical processes that would make their jobs more efficient. That's where the employees' value systems come in.

Without understanding where each employee is coming from and what motivates that person, she says, ''you won't have their buy-in, passion, vision -- all of the things that make people come alive. Companies that have it and understand it pull through even in a crisis.''

Factor in terrorism
Suddenly, according to Sohn and Michael McNeill, national director of coaching sales at Lee Hecht Harrison, employees across the country are stepping back to re-evaluate their own values systems -- what's important to them -- and they're looking closely at whether what they do in work and in life is significant enough. And that, they say, has changed the whole dynamic of the workplace -- which should drive some much-needed change in business and human resources strategies.

''People are troubled by that [Sept. 11] event and distracted from their goals,'' Sohn says. ''The economy was in a recession to begin with, then you add this crisis. Strategic planning has taken on entirely new dimensions. Companies can't progress now without dealing with the emotional side of business because their employees are now looking at time in a totally different way.

''Their question now is, 'What will tomorrow bring?'''

In this section
What will tomorrow bring? Or, as we have phrased it, ''Now what?'' We found no easy answers or corporate panaceas when it comes to exploring employee values systems, finding the right -- and sometimes daring -- vision for your company or even trying to re-energize to revive your entrepreneurial spirit. But we can tell you how others are doing it and where you can go for help in this quest for the future.

In this special section, we look at an employee-inclusive strategic planning process that works. We showcase a rather unusual experiential leadership development program that not only will put you out to pasture, so to speak, but will also teach you invaluable lessons about dealing with your employees more effectively.

We visit one entrepreneur's own ''Think-Time'' philosophy. We explore the growing realm of executive coaches and how they can help you. And we even take a short trip to a fantasy baseball camp, where one prominent business owner trades in his suits and business acumen for a baseball glove and bat.

All are good ideas, we think, although there are countless ways to step up, step out and step away from your day-to-day business life once in a while. So read on. When you're finished, we hope you'll raise the all-important question for yourself and your own company. That is, ''Now what?''

And then you'll do something about it.