How the Best CEOs Use ‘Thinking Time’—According to an Executive Coach

I work with a lot of CEOs who feel a bit unnerved about unscheduled blocks on their calendar. After months or years of having a packed schedule with back-to-back meetings, delegating tasks in order to free up “thinking time” can seem really unproductive.

Related: Founders: Being Busy Doesn’t Mean You’re Being Productive

The fact is that “just thinking” is one of the most impactful ways CEOs can spend their time. As an executive coach, these are the five ways I advise my clients to use this unstructured time productively.

1. Plan for the future

CEOs have the highest-level view of their company, the sharpest insights into their industry, and the most well-informed strategic point of view. Your employees rely on you to determine where the company is headed—not just in a few quarters, but in a few years. So use your unstructured time to ponder long-term strategy.

There are several ways to approach this abstract and intimidating task, but start by writing out some of your insights to help clarify your own thinking. Consider calling customers and industry experts to get their perspectives. This is a particularly good use of time, since you also build key relationships by having these discussions.

Think best out loud? Don’t feel like “thinking time” means you have to lock yourself in a room with a laptop—invite a teammate or two to brainstorm. But if you learn best by reading, find industry publications or blogs to spark your thinking. Carving out this kind of time will make sure that you’re looking to the future and not just putting out the fires of the present.

2. Build your narrative

Building a company is like writing a story. Does your team understand where things are going, how you’ll all get there together, and how their day-to-day work contributes to that story?

People absorb information best when they hear stories, and it’s really motivating to hear how their work impacts the bigger picture. So when you eventually communicate this strategy to your employees in all-hands meetings or in smaller forums, mention specific job functions and how they’re leading the company towards this vision. People want to know that their work matters for today and for the longer term.

3. Talk to customers

It doesn’t matter how big or small your company is: One of your key roles as CEO is as Chief Customer Officer. You need to have strong relationships with the senior leaders, decision makers, and your key customers to be in a position to close important accounts and help your team resolve mistakes and problems when they arise. If you already have a good relationship with your customers’ executives, you can smooth the way when issues pop up with one phone call.

Talking to customers also helps you stay plugged into the industry. What issues do they have and what are they seeing in the marketplace? Learning what’s on their minds can also be the source of innovation at your company. Plus, customer stories are always motivating for your team to hear. Consider folding them into your narrative.

4. Build your talent bench

You always need great new talent, and a strategic use of your time is to devote time to building your bench. Great CEOs proactively seek out the best people in any domain and get to know them. You may hire them over time, but even if you don’t, they can refer you to other stars who you can hire.

They can also give you insight into candidates you’re planning to hire when it really counts. This is especially true for senior hires, which, for your fast-growing company, can often be the riskiest.

Related read: The CEO’s Guide to Hiring Executives—According to Someone Who Has Hired Hundreds

Get in the habit of researching and asking for introductions to the stars in any field and stay in touch with them. You can devote some of your blocks of unstructured time to this research and outreach. Doing this over time will help you land crucial new talent when you need it.

5. Become a thought leader

Many CEOs get so heads-down in the details of running the company that they discount the value of being known as thought leaders in their industries. That’s a mistake. The more you elevate your profile and become well-known inside your field, the more you can attract customers, employees, and often press coverage for your company. These all have a high value.

Think about how you want to contribute. If you like public speaking, find conferences and panels to speak at. If you prefer writing, use your blog or industry websites and publications to hone your message. You can also record videos and post them on your website and social media. Find the channel that works for you, and use your blocks of time to create content that elevates you as an expert.

Sometimes CEOs and leaders don’t think they’re doing “real work” unless they’re focusing on day-to-day business operations. But I can’t stress this enough: Blocking time to do more deep thinking and relationship building is likely the most impactful way you can spend your time.

Header photo by Magnet.me on Unsplash

Alisa Cohn
Alisa Cohn
Executive Coach

Alisa Cohn is an Executive Coach who works with startup executives to help them develop the leadership skills they need to scale their companies successfully. She has worked with companies from very early stage to Fortune 50. Her clients include Venmo, Foursquare, Facebook, Google, Cisco and Dell. She is based in New York City.
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