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Jeannie, Maylee, and Sue, the chief technology officers of their respective software companies, met at their favorite park bench in a city park easily reachable from their respective offices. Meeting at a leadership development conference a few years back, they hit it off immediately and had since become fast friends.

“I feel so burnt out,” Jeannie said. “Now that we have opened development offices in Slovenia and the Philippines, I’m on video calls at six in the morning and eight in the evening. Plus all the meetings I already had scheduled from eight a.m. through supper time. Finding time to be with my family is tough. Taking time for myself is impossible.”

Sue shook her head in commiseration. Her company’s attempt at spinning up a second office in India was just ending. Not through any failing on the part of the overseas engineers; their work was stellar. The difference in time zones was simply too big. “I remember those days,” she said. “I am so glad they are over for me. Dealing with people in one location is plenty for me.”

Maylee made a face of mock puzzlement. “I don’t understand what you two are talking about,” she stated. “I have people in literally every time zone around the world. I’m not finding it to be a problem.”

“Well, we know you are the goddess of calm,” Sue replied. “How do you keep that title with the crazy schedule you must keep?”

Your past can help you find what works here in your present

“It’s not always so calm inside,” Maylee laughed. “And, my schedule doesn’t feel all that crazy. I’ve found a structure that works for me, and I stick to that without fail.”

“How did you find that rhythm?” Sue asked.

“And how do you keep to it?” Jeannie added.

“A lot of experimentation.”

“Do tell,” Jeannie requested. “I need to have a schedule that works before I can keep to it. I don’t have a clue how to get started.”

“I started by going back over my career, noting what my schedule had been like at times when I felt in control and what it had been when it felt completely chaotic. That gave me some first principles to test.”

“Like what?” Jeannie asked.

“A big one that became really clear when I reviewed the data is stopping work at five. Past that, I get hungry, restless, and grumpy. Another was never having more than two meetings in a row. It doesn’t matter whether they are ten minutes or two hours; I can do two back-to-back no problem. Not more than that, however. Any more, and I can’t keep them straight in my head.”

“How long of a break do you need in between?” Sue wanted to know.

“Not long. Ten or fifteen minutes is usually plenty. Just enough time to review my meeting notes, put them away, and take a few minutes to clear my head.”

“How do you enforce that?” Jeannie inquired. “My manager keeps giving me meetings that make me move all my other meetings around. And everyone else keeps having urgent questions that require meeting with me. No one listens to what I want.”

“One, I decided that just because a meeting appears on my calendar doesn’t mean I have to attend.”

Jeannie and Sue stared at Maylee in astonishment. “Mind blown,” Jeannie declared.

Make visible the cost of working outside your preferences

Maylee continued, “Two, I helped my executive team understand how much they cost the company every time they randomized my schedule. Forcing me to move around meetings forces all those people to move around meetings, and pretty soon, the entire company is spending valuable time and energy reacting. That adds up to serious money.”

“That’s a good idea,” Sue said thoughtfully. “Couching the effects of their actions in terms of cost to the company.”

“You made the impact of those instameetings visible,” Jeannie noted. “That will help a lot with my people.”

“It made a huge difference,” Maylee agreed. “Once I pointed it out, they realized they felt all the same impacts. We set aside ten-thirty to eleven-thirty each morning and four to four-thirty each afternoon for those instameetings, as you called them. That gives everyone time to catch up with things in the morning, so we know the state of things going into that morning meeting. And it gives us a chance to take care of any last-minute things in the evening before wrapping up and going home.”

“So, you just have several standing meetings every day now, rather than a storm of ad hoc ones?”

“Nope. We only use that time if someone wants a live discussion. Simply knowing we have that option available has cut the number of meetings we have by ninety percent or something.”

“Wow,” Sue said, amazed. “I’m going to propose that the minute I get back.”

Working within your preferences helps your team work within theirs

“What about everyone down your reporting chain?” Jeannie asked. “How do you keep them from dropping meetings in your lap?”

“I told them—and my executive team—that I wouldn’t attend meetings dropped in my lap with less than two days’ notice, or that didn’t leave me buffer time in between. At the same time, I set up open time every day to batch up all those ad hoc must-be-done-in-person interactions.”

“And they let you do that?” Sue asked disbelievingly.

“I didn’t give them a choice,” Maylee responded. “Like I said, just because a meeting is on my calendar doesn’t mean I have to attend.”

“You didn’t just throw down that gauntlet, though,” Jeannie realized. “Knowing you, I’m sure you let them know why you were doing this.”

“I did. I also told them I expected them to do the same: to work in the best way for them.”

“I bet they didn’t believe you,” Jeannie said.

“Some of them didn’t,” Maylee agreed. “I didn’t worry about it. When they saw me follow through, and back up everyone else as they started working how they wanted, that changed. And, the few people who couldn’t make the switch found somewhere else to work.”

“How did you handle the inevitable collisions?” Jeannie asked. “There must have been some ‘I only want meetings in the morning’ versus ‘I want meetings only after two’-type conflicts.”

“There were. We worked them out. It was good practice working through differences.”

“This all seems amazing,” Sue said. “None of this, however, explains how you’re not up at all hours meeting with your round-the-world team.”

“As teams developed their working agreements for meetings, I collated everyone’s preferences and identified a few blocks of time that more-or-less work for me and everyone else. Yes, sometimes I’m up earlier or later than I really want. I’m willing to make that tradeoff to have quality time with my far-flung teams. And, they’re making some tradeoffs in return, because they also value face time with me and everyone else here.”

Working a bit outside your preferences may be the best way to work within them

“I guess that’s a way to summarize everything you’ve done,” Sue said thoughtfully. “Your entire schedule is built around tradeoffs. You worked with your exec team on a process that lets you mostly work how you prefer while also mostly allowing them to do the same. While you told everyone reporting up to you how things would be, you mostly didn’t lay down edicts. You worked with them to build something that mostly works for all of you.”

“Tradeoffs are what business is all about,” Jeannie said. Maylee and Sue nodded their agreement.

“Thanks for the great ideas, Maylee,” Jeannie continued. “I have a better idea now of how you maintain your equanimity. Reviewing what’s worked for you in the past and explaining the cost everyone is paying when working outside their preferences helps you work within yours.”

“And that,” Sue added, “helps your team work within their preferences. Leading by example. Including demonstrating that the best way to work within your preferences may be to work outside them a little bit so that everyone else can be only a little bit outside theirs.”

“So, you two will have your new routines ironed out by the next time we meet?” Maylee asked with a teasing smile.

“Oh, yeah, for sure,” Jeannie said with a roll of her eyes.

“It’s probably going to take a little longer than that,” Sue agreed. “’A while’ is so much better than ‘I have no idea,’ though. I’m excited for the progress I know I will make.”

“Oh, yeah, for sure,” Jeannie said again, this time with sincerity.

And with that, they clinked glasses and started discussing their weekend plans.

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