It’s About Time

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The importance of time in establishing one’s place in the world has been well understood for at least a thousand years.

The very first seafarers faced the challenge of knowing where they were in the vastness of the open oceans.

Establishing your position north and south was easy. Guides like the sun, the moon, and the north star provided even early mariners their latitude with precision.

Longitude, your position east and west, however, was always a challenge due to the constant rotation of the earth. With the heavens in constant motion, sailors could be off hundreds of miles in a matter of days. The premiere seafaring nations offered prizes to anyone who could solve the ever vexing “Longitude Problem”. The prizes went unclaimed for nearly a century and a half.

The most popular solution was timekeeping. If you knew the precise time at your point of origin and compared it with local heavenly observation you could know exactly how far east or west you had travelled. But pendulums, the regulators of the most accurate clocks of the period, were useless on the rolling seas. Finally, a series of innovations in the 1700s resulted in clocks that worked even there. The longitude problem was solved, and time it seems, was the solution to knowing where you were.

Time is still at core of knowing where you are some 300 years later. Satellite navigation systems, like GPS in the United States, are based entirely on time. Dozens of extremely precise clocks, accurate to a picosecond (a trillionth of a second), broadcast the time continuously from their fixed locations. Your simple receiver compares the time from a number of satellites and with some basic math can determine your location on the planet, accurate to as close as a centimeter. And as a byproduct, your car, phone, or smartwatch are incredibly accurate timekeepers.

Time, it seems, has long been at the very root of knowing where you are. It’s especially true in organizations. And that’s what this is all about.

This is Leading Smart, the show about Managing in the Brainpower Age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace. I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.

In this episode we’ll explore how to build an organization that values diversity of thought. This is Episode 210 — It’s About Time.

Time is often used as a metric for experience and wisdom. In many organizations, seniority is the guidepost for virtually everything: from policies to promotions to payroll. Many union contracts and company policies make role selections based solely on seniority. And most compensation schemes offer extreme prejudice to time on the job over performance.

More insidious, however is that much of the power in decision making often gives deference to tenure. The simple passage of time somehow grants not just perspective, but control.

The project meeting was a jumble. Lots of ideas, not a lot of traction. The discussion was active and contentious with factions slowly forming. It wasn’t clear that consensus was within reach. It went in circles for nearly an hour. Then, eerily, the discussion fell silent. All eyes turned to one end of the room. The elder statesman, heretofore quiet, was about to speak. He – yes, it’s always a he — paused for dramatic effect, leaned back in their chair, hands folded on their head, and began to speak.

He’d been ridiculed in the past, so he avoided saying “back in my day” or “what we’ve always done is…”. But the effect is the same. The room nodded in unison as the oracle spoke. He told a story about what happened that one time. How this all went wrong before. And how the only way to proceed is … well, it doesn’t matter. Somehow the weight of the discussion was changed, and the tenure of the oracle swayed the decision.

Shortly thereafter, the meeting ended. The result was unsatisfactory to most, many of their objections were simply swept aside. The project lumbered down the path championed by the elder statesman. He quietly beamed. The rest wondered what just happened. But … it is what it is.

At the other end of the spectrum are the companies that have recognized this folly. They’ve read the Innovator’s Dilemma, they know the danger of “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” They strive to be disruptors. Their cultures develop antibodies to this behavior. They push against this kind of thinking reflexively.

Many overcompensate and dismiss age and wisdom as a matter pride. “That’s old school,” they say, and they press on disrupting.

Both of course are wrong. The oracle is often wrong in light of current conditions. And the new idea that rejects the past is bound to repeat it. Both positions mistake the age of a notion as a proxy for its value.

But more importantly, both positions also tend to confuse the messenger with the message. Some are summarily dismissed as youth and inexperience, others as old and out of touch. Here again, time alone is seen as the measure of value. Not the value of the idea.

Yet, when time is the only metric, it’s easy to see how wrong these attitudes are. One can easily work to correct and compensate. We shouldn’t dismiss either the new or old without a fair hearing. We should work to build decision making that includes both the tried and true and the disruptive perspectives. Though difficult to implement, these are easily seen as the right thing to do. Time is clearly measurable, and is a neutral, uncontroversial adversary.

Alas, time is not the only misguided measure of the value of an idea. And it’s certainly not the only measure of the messenger presenting it. Time in fact maybe be but the easiest of measures. More subtle and complex are the measures around life experience.

When building an organization that is striving to excel, limitless ideas, vibrant discussion, and the freedom from ridicule are the foundations of the creativity that achieves it. As we discussed the last time, core to making this happen is deep diversity of thought. Which in turn comes from a rich and varied spectrum of voices around the table. The best and most fertile teams are often the most heterogeneous, with people from a variety of backgrounds. Diverse in not just in age or race or sex, but in life experiences as well.

Teams like this can be a challenge for a leader, however. Along with this variety comes, by definition, a range of patterns of speech, of modes of thought, of reactions to challenges. It can tax even the most skilled moderator.

Perhaps paradoxically, however, it is time that is key to making such complex organizations work. Time can be a leader’s most valuable tool in building teams. Time in many dimensions.

It’s her first day on the job. She walks into the dark glass building from her bus stop. It is enormous and complex. She’s feeling a moment of panic, both physically and mentally lost. She’s determined to be successful but arrives without an ally in the world.

All around her there are people bustling here and there. She sees no familiar faces, not even someone who looks like her. She again feels a slight panic. Even though she speaks the language, they might as well be talking mandarin. Every conversation is filled with acronyms, every bit of levity is an inside joke.

The more people she meets, the more she realizes she shares no experiences with them. It seems like they all went to the same schools, lived the same life. Even the simple customs are different, there’s a whole array of unspoken norms she’s never seen. She begins to question her life choices.

But it gets better. She found both the bathroom and the cafeteria on the first try. Within a few days, the job became clearer. Some people in nearby cubes were thoughtful. This might be ok, she thought.

One day her team meets to discuss an exciting new project. It’s a fascinating, bold concept, the customer is a big deal, and she can’t wait to pitch in. Ideas are flowing, the pace in the room gradually accelerates. Everyone seems to have something to add, the excitement in the room is beginning to build. This could be great. Everyone seems to be talking at once. She sees an opening and tosses in an idea. It gets trampled instantly. Dismissed out of hand. “I wonder why…” she thinks. Maybe my idea was just silly. Or maybe…

A few days later in a subsequent meeting, it happens again. She barely finished the sentence before she was drowned out. Now she’s beginning to notice a pattern. No one takes me seriously. Even around the lunch table. Is it because I’m new? Because I don’t have any experience? Or is it because it’s me?

Then the third time it happens, there’s a different leader in the room. He’s the head of a group coordinating with her team. His style is completely different. The pace of the room is still fevered, the discussion is still animated, but it feels different.

She steels herself, tries to dip her toe in the water. To see if she can get something said. And this time when she speaks it’s different. Someone tries to talk over her, and the leader interjects: “hey, let her speak”. She manages to get her thoughts out and … waits. The room is quiet, the leader pauses just long enough, maybe to the count of three, and says, “so, how would that work?” A vigorous discussion ensues. Her idea isn’t adopted, but she can tell it steered the conversation. She marks it up as a win.

As the meeting goes on, she notices this leader gently guiding the discussion. Pausing the conversation every so often long enough to leave gaps for the less aggressive types to find their voices. Actively encouraging the quiet members to join in. When they do, he gently protects them from the swarm.

A follow up meeting happens a few days later. She notices the leader isn’t actively killing the discussion, just controlling the pace. Tamping down aggressive or derisive behavior. Interjecting themselves with a calm and steady voice that seems not to change the discussion just focus it and manage the tempo.

She found more openings and managed to make real contributions this time. Maybe it’s not her, she thinks. Maybe it never was. All I really needed was time. The time to find my voice. The time to get my footing. The time to fit in.

A year later, she’s feeling really comfortable. A few months before, she had found an opening in that leader’s group, and moved. He turns out to be a great boss. What she notices is that he’s always got the time. Time to handle a quick question. Time to offer a little encouragement. Time to help her find her way.

Their one-on-one meetings are particularly helpful. He doesn’t spend much time on the status or details of her work, he seems to feel she’s got that under control. They spend most of the time on understanding how the organization works. How to get things get handled. Where the sticky parts are. How to get ahead.

Most helpful are the times he just stops by her desk. And listens. Sure, there’s the obligatory check in on the work, but mostly it’s just about her. And how she’s doing. Maybe a quick pointer on how to handle something. Or connection with someone who can unblock a problem. She appreciates the time he spends. No, it’s not a lot, but with his busy schedule, it’s invaluable.

Now six years in, she is a fully formed rising star. She’s been promoted three times, worked in another group for a couple of years, and come back into her mentor’s organization. He’s been rising fast as well, now a corporate VP. Though she doesn’t like to think of it that way, riding in his wake has helped a lot.

It hasn’t all been wonderful. The project she was on in that other group was a disaster. It was late, and eventually stumbled out the door to decidedly mixed customer reviews. And she had helped manage it. But the problems weren’t all hers, and she hadn’t been covered in all the stink when it did wrap up.

She especially appreciated the way her mentor covered her back in the project review. Blame was everywhere, and certainly she deserved some of it. But when one of her peers deflected it all to those around them, her mentor was sure to balance the scales. He didn’t leap to her defense personally, but he made sure everyone realized that mistakes are human, and there were a lot of reasons why the project was a dud. And he offered her a job back in the comfort of his organization once it was finally over.

She now has some perspective and realizes that all she really needed was time. Time in those early meetings to get her point out. Time in her role to understand the dynamics. Time from her mentor to get some perspective. And time in the organization to succeed, and fail, as she grew into a more senior position. She realized that along with a great mentor, time was what helped her find her place in the world.

Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my web site

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That’s it for this episode. The next episode is another of my conversations with leaders. We talk with David Risher, the man who led the transformation of Amazon from a bookstore to an everything store. These days he leads Worldreader, a global effort to enlist a billion readers. We talk about the joys and challenges of leading in the not-for-profit world. I hope you’ll listen. Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.