CEOs must find time for strategic planning – here’s how to do it


(David Saracino/For the Washington Post)
March 23, 2012

In a former role as the CEO of a growing technology company, I had a great employee, who we’ll call Karen. Karen was conscientious, smart, and worked extremely hard. Like most of us, she was always busy, whether running a meeting, calling a customer, or putting out a fire. I had noticed this for some time and knew I needed to help, or risk losing her to burnout.

One day we sat down for an update and I asked Karen, ‘Who do you think is busier, me or you?’ And she didn’t answer, perhaps for fear of upsetting the CEO. We both knew the answer. I broke the silence first.

“You are much busier than me,” I told her.

And she asked, “Why is that?” And I answered, “‘Because I have you working for me and you don’t.’”

Then, as a wry smile spread across her face, I challenged Karen to find her own trustworthy lieutenant and spend less time responding to the latest urgency and more time on strategic planning.

Sounds easy enough, but very few people, CEOs included, solve the quandary of getting out of the day-to-day in order to spend valuable brain cycles focusing on the future. Whether you’re the CEO of a global corporation, founder of a mom and pop business, or simply head of your own household, it’s absolutely critical to make time for thinking strategically and planning. Otherwise, you might be working day and night and wake up one day to realize, perhaps painfully, that the business or life you set out to create is headed straight off a cliff.

If any of this hits close to home, here are five strategies that I have found invaluable over the years.

Write down your goals and revisit them on a quarterly basis. There’s an old saying in business: ‘If it isn’t written, it doesn’t exist.’ Write down your goals. Then find a prominent place in your office to post them and make sure you share them with your team. Use your goals, not the latest e-mail, to drive behavior and decision making.

Figure out what you’re not going to work on. If you are already working long days, you must decide what is not important and simply let it go. Allowing some things to burn to the ground (and not kill your organization) will ultimately provide you with the time you need to work on your business and not in it.

Spend 50 percent of your time on strategic planning. For a month, keep a timesheet and write down how you spend every hour. If you’re the CEO, a good goal is to spend at least 50 percent of your time on the core issues that you’ve identified as your top priorities and the other half on tactical, day-to-day issues. Use the timesheet to hold yourself accountable.

Avoid surprises by planning for potential outcomes. As part of your planning process, think deeply about what could occur in your business and life and create options. A former Navy SEAL once taught me: If you have only one alternative to what’s going on, you have none; and if you have two, you really only have one. In other words, make sure you have a back-up plan and an alternative to the back-up.

Join a CEO roundtable. Being the boss can be a lonely job. But you can gain valuable insight — especially into setting and keeping strategic goals — by joining a group of CEOs for regular strategic planning discussions. If nothing else, these groups provide a forum where a group of successful, driven people will hold you accountable for what you said you’re going to do.

If decades of experience managing businesses and mentoring CEOs has taught me anything, it’s that successful leaders always make time for planning. They create options for themselves and their businesses and then they follow through.

Do this for yourself and you can start planning, rather than hoping for success.

Les Trachtman is chief operating officer of Crofton-based Force 3, which provides government and enterprise customers with expertise in data center management, borderless networks, unified communications and cyber security services.

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