Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is CEO of Savvy Growth, a leadership coaching and management consultancy founded in 2003.  Her great passion to help leaders and the companies they run achieve their fullest potential combined with her empathy and ability to help leaders figure out their “why” is what clients value most.  Grace writes an exclusive column for WRAL TechWire. 


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK –At my 30th Harvard Business School reunion, Arthur Brooks, Professor of Happiness, shared an a-ha he discovered about approaching life while taking a tour at the Taiwan National Palace Museum. His guide painted a picture visually of the difference between western and eastern art.  He said that the Chinese artist visualizes the finished masterpiece and considers it their job to chip away the jade until the work of art appears. This is in contrast to western art where artists start with a blank canvas and keep adding more and more elements in order to create their art. 

2 ton piece of jade Final masterpiece

Images via Grace Ueng

I am embarking on my second year of happiness studies.  This week I listened intently to my teacher, Tal Ben Shahar, the creator of Harvard University’s most popular course ever on Happiness, as he suggested reexamining our relationship with time.  No matter how much money we have, we each have been given the same 24 hours in each day.  The difference is how we choose to live this time. Do we stuff as much into each day as possible or are we intentional about what we choose to take out?  I connected this to the 2 ton block of jade, as to get to a masterpiece, we have to chip away at the excess.

Are we fully present in the here and now or do we spend our time thinking about the past and the future? Harvard University psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert conducted research which found that people spend about half of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing and “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” Being fully present with our colleagues allows us to be active listeners, a critical skill to cultivate to be an effective leader.

Carving out alone time is also important for leaders.  Yesterday, I was speaking with a client I’ll call “Mary” about her scheduling and asked if she scheduled “Mary” time. She could call it “strategic planning meeting” or whatever label that would ensure no one would schedule over. I told her alone time is not selfish, instead making sure she has time to reflect and think, is a benefit for the team.

Do only the things that only you can do.

Leaders I coach often tell me they are challenged by the demands that so many people and too many projects place on their time.  I ask them “are you doing only the things that only you can do?” I suggest an assignment of tracking their time for a couple of weeks, color coding different buckets of activity, and then tallying up to see how much time is spent in each bucket. What surprises does this calendar audit reveal?  Where can they delegate more?  Are they spending time in alignment with their goals and objectives?

Teflon Talli

My first job out of business school was at General Mills and my first boss was named Talli.  My brand team and I marveled how her in-box was always empty.  This was over three decades ago, before email, so assignments were paper based and distributed into metal in-boxes.  We joked that her in-box was teflon coated as memos would slide quickly from her in-box into ours! She was swift in delegating tasks that came her way directly into our in-boxes. 

Looking back, her delegation and doing only the things that she really needed to do made us stronger. I ran the numbers and placed a copy of the daily shipment reports first thing each morning in the in-boxes of our general manager and our brand group.  I would also lead our monthly forecast meetings, so I made darn sure that I was thoroughly prepared to back up my projections when our general manager or head of R&D questioned a number.  Since I was fully accountable, I was all-in.

As the most junior member of our brand team, I was asked by Talli’s boss, our general manager, my point of view first at each of our cross functional team meetings. To this day, I have a close relationship with that boss and keep in regular touch.  Because Talli was “teflon,” I had a large amount of responsibility and exposure to senior management and flexed my general management skills.  General Mills’ recruiting slogan was “General Mills – GM –  you learn general management.”  Their leadership lived up to that promise.  

Doing only the things that only you can do benefits the whole team and the entire company.

Michael Porter: The father of competitive strategy and his finding

“The” Michael Porter was my Competition and Strategy professor when I was a first year at Harvard Business School. His rock star status at the business school made the stress in that class ultra thick.

Porter and the former HBS Dean Nitin Noria conducted longitudinal research from over 60,000 hours of calendar data from 27 CEOs by having their executive assistants track all of their time, 24/7, for three months.  

How a leader spends his or her time is telling. “A CEO’s schedule (indeed, any leader’s schedule), then, is a manifestation of how the leader leads and sends powerful messages to the rest of the organization,” wrote Michael Porter and Nitin Nohria in their Harvard Business Review article “How CEOs Manage Time.” Where and how CEOs are involved determines what gets done.  It signals priorities.

I share my top 5 take-ways from their research, relevant for all leaders.

  1. Spell out your Agenda. CEOs are always on, and there is always more to be done. As important as smart delegation is, you can’t hand off everything. You should have a written agenda updated each quarter detailing your top priorities. It is critical for you and/or your executive assistant to internalize this agenda and view each meeting request through this lens.
  2. Collaborative Leadership Team. A close knit leadership team that collaborates without the CEO’s direction or even in the absence of the CEO, is critical to a high performing company. One test is, if the CEO has a health scare and is out of commission for a few weeks, will the team know what to do and keep the company humming? 
  3. Weakest Link – a problem. It is critical for each member of the leadership team to have the capabilities to excel and earn the CEO’s full trust and support. Any weakness in this team significantly reduces the CEO’s effectiveness, because dealing with the work the direct report should have handled, takes up precious CEO time.

    The #1 regret reported was not setting high enough standards in selecting direct reports, hiring for the present and not for the future.  
  4. Rely heavily on direct reports. The more CEOs can delegate to their leadership team, the better they generally feel about their use of time. 
  5. Direct reports review and inform. Effective CEOs put in place well designed structures and processes that help everyone else in the organization make good choices. They quickly shed their prior role of COO or president and allow their senior team to bear primary responsibility for reviews and keeping him or her informed. This gives their management teams autonomy and accountability and helps CEOs get the best out of others.

The role modeling they provide should then trickle down into the organization.  

Like Teflon Talli down to me!

My parting note, given top leaders are almost always “on,” consider time to be “off.”

The ancient Greeks had 2 words for time:

  1. Chronos for clock time 
  2. Kyros for human time. Not measured by machines, rather marked by significant events in our lives.

Choose a time this week to allow yourself to get lost in an activity and forget the clock. Let the rhythms of life, essential for our well being, restore you.

Into being a stronger leader.

About Grace Ueng

Grace is CEO of Savvy Growth, a leadership coaching and management consultancy founded in 2003.  Her great passion to help leaders and the companies they run achieve their fullest potential combined with her empathy and ability to help leaders figure out their “why” are what clients value most.  

Grace’s core offerings are one on one coaching for CEOs and their leadership teams, facilitating workshops on Personal Branding, Happiness and Vulnerability, and Speaking Success, and conducting strategic reviews for companies at a critical juncture. A TEDx speaker, she is hired to give keynotes on Happiness and Mental Wellness.

A marketing strategist, Grace held leadership roles at five high growth technology ventures that successfully exited through acquisition or IPO. She started her career at Bain & Company and then worked in brand management at Clorox and General Mills. She is a graduate of MIT and Harvard Business School and holds a positive coaching certification from the Whole Being Institute.

Grace and her partner, Rich Chleboski, a cleantech veteran, develop and implement strategies to support the growth of impact focused companies and then coach their leaders in carrying out their strategic plans. Their expertise spans all phases of the business from evaluation through growth and liquidity.