Not every startup CEO has extra time to spare between finding investors, hiring talent, and leading great teams. But if you have hired smart employees who you can delegate to and trust, you may have freed up a good amount of time and created unstructured blocks of thinking time on your calendar.
If you're like many of my CEO clients, you may feel a bit unnerved with unscheduled blocks on your calendar. What should you do with all this time? As an executive coach, here are five ways I advise clients to use unstructured time productively.
1. Plan for the future
As the CEO, you have the highest-level view of your company, the sharpest insights into your industry, and the most well-informed strategic point of view. Your employees are looking to you to determine where the company is headed not just in a few quarters but in a few years. So use your unstructured time to ponder long-term strategy.
There are several ways to approach this fairly abstract and intimidating task. Write out some of your insights to help you clarify your own thinking. You can also call some customers and industry experts to get their perspectives. This is a particularly good use of time, since you also build key relationships by having these discussions.
If you think best out loud, have a member or two of your team join you in a brainstorming discussion. Yes, you don't have to spend your blocked off time all alone with your computer. But if you learn best by reading, find industry publications or blogs to spark your thinking. Carving out this kind of time will make sure that you are looking to the future and not just putting out the fires of the present.
2. Build your narrative
As you hone your point of view, use some of your strategic time to create a narrative that helps your employees understand where the company is going, how it will get there, and how their day-to-day work contributes to your future.
Remember that people absorb information best when they hear stories and they are most motivated when they see how their work impacts the bigger picture. So when you make your plans to communicate the strategy to your employees in all-hands meetings or in smaller forums, mention specific job functions and how they are leading the company towards this vision. People want to know that their work matters for today and for the longer term.
3. Talk to customers
It doesn't matter how big or small your company is: One of your key roles as CEO is as Chief Customer Officer. You need to have strong relationships with the senior leaders, decision makers, and your key customers to be in a position to close important accounts and help your team resolve mistakes and problems when they arise. If you already have a good relationship with your customer's executives, you can smooth the way when issues pop up with one phone call.
Talking to customers also helps you stay plugged into the industry. What issues do they have and what are they seeing in the marketplace? Learning what is on their minds can also be the source of innovation at your company. Plus, customer stories are always motivating for your team to hear. You can fold them into your narrative so employees can see the impact of their work.
4. Build your talent bench
You always need great new talent, and a strategic use of your time is to devote time to building your bench. Great CEOs proactively seek out the best people in any domain and get to know them. You may hire them over time, but even if you don't, they can refer you to other stars that you can hire.
They can also give you insight into candidates you are planning to hire when it really counts. This is especially true for senior hires, which, for your fast-growing company, can often be the riskiest.
Get in the habit of researching and asking for introductions to the stars in any field and stay in touch with them. You can devote some of your blocks of unstructured time to this research and outreach. Doing this over time will help you land crucial new talent when you need it.
5. Become a thought leader
Many CEOs get so heads down in the details of running the company that they discount the value of being known as thought leaders in their industries. That's a mistake. The more you elevate your profile and become well-known inside your field, the more you can attract customers, employees and often press coverage for your company. These all have a high value.
Think about how you want to contribute. If you like public speaking, find conferences and panels to speak at. If you prefer writing, use your blog or industry websites and publications to hone your message. You can also record videos and post them on your website and share them using social media and other channels. Find the channel that works for you and use your blocks of time to create content that will help raise your profile and that of your company.
Sometimes CEOs and leaders think they are not doing "real work" if they don't spend time on the day-to-day business. But blocking time to do more deep thinking and relationship building is actually the highest impact time you can spend.