The flop sweat caught me off guard. Driving to a doctor’s appointment, I was running just a couple minutes late. Yet I was filled with panic and driving like a jerk, darting from lane to lane and cursing people for driving too slowly. This for an appointment I was paying for, and where I’d likely spend many minutes in the waiting room.
It happened the previous day as well. I arrived only three minutes late for a lunch with an old colleague. I found him searching his phone for a text or other sign from me. “You’re never late,” he told me, “I was getting worried.” Because I was three minutes late.
I go to great lengths to never be late. But I wasn’t always that way. A leadership mentor of mine once enlightened me: “timeliness is respect”. Especially as a leader. I’ve lived that way ever since.
Time is Money
I know many leaders who don’t see it this way. They are always late. Rushing into meetings, breathless, meekly apologizing and then asking “so where are we?” The answer is almost always: “waiting for you.”
One leader I know is so predictably late that others show up to meetings with them five or ten minutes late themselves. “[leader’s] always late, why be on time?” It’s even become a joke behind their back. “They’ll be late to their own funeral.”
These leaders feel that their time is money. And the higher up in the organization the more expensive the time. So they pack their time to the second, rushing about, flying into this meeting, hustling off to the next, scattering insincere apologies: “Gotta run…” But they are really bad at time management. They are five, ten, even twenty minutes late. All the time.
What they don’t see is that the time they are wasting is everyone else’s. That the ten (or hundreds of) people waiting for them are worth at least as much per hour as they are. From a simple economics perspective, being late is expensive.
Timeliness is Respect
Worse, all those people aren’t sitting there thinking “he’s so important, he must be really busy meeting with all kinds of important people, I’m so lucky to be getting even a few moments of his time!”
Nope. In reality, they are thinking “who is this pompous jerk who doesn’t even respect me enough to be on time?” The meeting is already off to a bad start, and the leader isn’t even in the room yet.
When the leader is late, everyone wonders if they should begin without them. If they do, they risk the very real chance that when the leader finally arrives, they will want the meeting to go in a different direction. With the leader frustrated that things went one way, and the rest of the room frustrated that they didn’t know better. And the meeting starts again, from the top.
Whether it’s just the leader or a participant who is late, we’ve all been in a meeting when a latecomer demands “so where are we?” And, there you have it, a rehash of the last ten minutes, that takes five minutes. The lateness multiplier.
Whatever the effect of tardiness is to the meeting at hand, the overriding stench is a lack of respect. The person who is late clearly doesn’t respect the people waiting. The people waiting rapidly lose respect for the person who is late.
It’s a Sign
Shortly after I learned that Timeliness is Respect, I found ways to be on time. My amazing assistant, Jill, always scheduled meetings allowing for travel time. Even time to the next building, or a few floors away. She would even take into account the number of meetings in a row, and add restroom breaks into the travel time. We would push meetings back a half-hour to make sure that spill-over from one, with travel time to the next, would get me there on time. She’d pop into meetings, or even call my cell, to get me to end a meeting and move on to the next one.
But it wasn’t just Jill, I focus on it too. If I am the leader of a large meeting, I’ll get there ahead of time and wait down the hall, just so I can enter precisely on time. Not to make some form of dramatic entrance, but only to make the subtle point that everyone’s time is important. I’ll be on time, I expect you to be as well.
And this timeliness passion spills over. If meetings, calls, and presentations are always on time, everyone begins to expect everything to be on time. Being late with a promised deliverable is not accepted. Failing to follow up with that email you promised yesterday is just not done.
Timeliness forms a foundation of an organizational culture that sets expectations that aren’t just goals, but promises. There is an implied contract that you’ll do your job, I’ll do mine, and we’ll all get things done. And that kind of leadership of expectations is set right at the top.
Leading on Time
Being on time is one of hundreds of small signals that leaders can send that build the tone and culture of an organization. We’ll discuss a lot of them here on Leading Smart. These small signs tell your team that they are important, and that you are a leader, a team member, and that you respect them. And you respect their time.