Preparation Is the New Leadership Differentiator

Posted 10.02.2019

In watching and working with top executives and their teams over the past few years, I’ve come to a fresh conclusion. Preparation is the new leadership differentiator.

You might argue that preparation has always been important. I would agree with you on that but would contend that preparation is in shorter supply than it used to be. As pretty much every organization continues on its quest to do more with less, it’s become common for executives and managers to show up for meetings and conversations only partially prepared or even fully unprepared. 

The first few times they do there might be murmured apologies for not being ready. Then it becomes the accepted norm for both the leader and the people they’re meeting with. Then the slope gets slipperier as a culture of poor preparation flows from the top down into the rest of the organization. Everyone has become “so busy” that winging it (and the rework that comes with it) becomes the new normal.

Leaders who show up prepared differentiate themselves from those who don’t. How can you be that prepared leader even when your plate is overfull? Here are three best practices that I see my best prepared executive coaching clients follow:

Book the time: The best prepared leaders book the time to prepare. Most of them do that through three lenses of time – short-term, medium-term and long-term. Their short-term preparation is focused on the next one or two days. They book somewhere between 45 and 90 minutes every couple of days to do the reading, thinking or writing they need to do to be ready for the commitments on their calendar in the next 48 hours. Their medium-term preparation is focused on the next one or two weeks. They book about 30 to 60 minutes a week to scan their calendar for the next couple of weeks with the goal of flagging commitments that they need to start preparing for further in advance.  Finally, long-term preparation is focused on three months ahead. This is handled with a monthly session to scan for commitments like a major presentation or project that will require a sequenced plan of multiple sessions to prepare. They then book the time on their calendar to do that longer-term preparation.

Don’t overcommit: The best prepared leaders don’t overcommit themselves. They have a clear point of view on the tasks and initiatives that are the highest and best uses of their time and attention and commit accordingly. They don’t overcommit by agreeing to do things that aren’t aligned with their highest and best use. They’d rather say no and create a short-term, small disappointment than say yes and create a bigger disappointment down the road by not being able to follow through in a meaningful way.

Get the picture: The best prepared leaders have busy days just like everyone else they’re working with. What differentiates them is that they have the habit of pausing throughout the day to mentally prepare themselves for what’s coming next on their calendar. They do this by walking through a simple two-minute visualization exercise that enables them to get the picture of what they’re trying to accomplish in the next meeting and how they need to show up to make that outcome likely. As they consider the “what”, they remind themselves of what success in that meeting would look like in terms of information shared, problems solved, lessons learned, agreements made or inspiration generated. They then focus on the “how” of the energy they’ll need to project to lead the group to that outcome. Are they transmitting, receiving or demonstrating a balance between the two? How will their body language, tone of voice and choice of language reflect their intent? Two-minute sessions of just-in-time preparation on the “what” and “how” helps make the best leaders fully effective throughout their busy days.

What’s working or not working for you on being a prepared leader? What best practices would you add to the three I’ve shared here?

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