“I’m too busy!” Why senior leaders’ decisions cause their own lack of time

How busy have you been recently? Rushed off your feet? Busier than a bee? As a nation we lead busy lives, which doesn’t stop once we get to work. Quite the opposite. Increasingly we see senior people struggling to do what they need to do in a working day. It’s not something that appears to be limited to one industry or sector and it seems that the more senior the individual, the worse the problem.

The answer? Send the senior team on a time management course! Which would be great – except that tips and tricks aren’t the problem. In our experience, the issue usually originates with the senior person’s decision making. Decisions which don’t just impact them, but the team, the wider business, and which mean that senior people find themselves working late into the evening after everyone else has left.

So if senior people know how to manage time in theory, it begs the question of why this isn’t happening in practice. To answer this, it’s necessary to explore another question first of all: how much of a “lack of time” is genuine?

Senior people: a day in the life

When Farscape arrive to facilitate a development programme or to coach individuals or teams, we’re often greeted by a familiar picture. Senior people find themselves called into meetings, invited to conference calls, and are involved in decision making which all add up to extra demands and pulls on their attention and time. Of the people that we work with, senior leaders can spend as much as 90-95% of their time in meetings! And all of the work that only they can do? Yes, they still have to do all of that. That means late nights cramming in work and trying to juggle a home life in there too!

Do you recognise the picture? Perhaps it’s an image you see in yourself. Time-saving tips and tricks are only useful when they are used. And invariably, once reality bites back at the office, those tips and tricks are soon forgotten about. People are so busy in fact, that senior leaders rarely get a moment to stop and to think critically about the situation, even at a surface level. Which is exactly what this picture describes. And like any good painting, there’s usually more going on than the eye first sees.

What’s really happening when senior leaders are busy?

To fully grasp why leaders are so busy, despite the obvious fact that they head up an organisation, it’s crucial to scratch beneath the surface of the picture painted above.

Senior leaders choose to give their time where they will

Of course, some things really do demand their time and attention. Most of the time, being the most senior people in the business, leaders have the luxury of picking and choosing how they spend their time. That isn’t always utilised, however.

Reasons for senior leaders making the choices they do

  • Decision making – Out of habit or out of enjoyment, old ways tend to persist as senior people hold onto the decision-making responsibilities they held in previous roles.
  • The nature of the work – Sometimes people want to stick to the actual work that they enjoy and have built a career on. They like seeing problems solved in real time, and to wrestle with work that is more ‘tangible’ than the strategy and big thinking they are now paid to do.
  • Their feelings – Often leaders want to feel busy, part of the wider business, to feel needed or in control. Sometimes, leaders feel that they know best or they believe that “if you want a job doing well, you’d better do it yourself.”


While any or all of the above reasons may have truth in them, senior leaders’ constant busyness may be a sign that there’s a lack of trust in the business. Perhaps leaders feel that their direct reports are “not quite there yet” in terms of decision making or being autonomous.


Leaders may hold onto the old tasks where they felt comfortable, despite being promoted. Many people are promoted for their technical ability and know-how. They are now paid to be strategic, to use their experience and their expertise, which is a very different expectation to what they are used to. Retreating to where it was safe, means leaders feel more comfortable.

These reasons and deeper motivations are what become apparent in a coaching session. Everyone’s reasons vary, so a coach is a real benefit to helping each individual establish what is causing them to lack time persistently.

Technology enables busyness and creates unrealistic expectations

In many cases, technology plays a significant part in driving the behaviour that is causing senior leaders’ lack of time. Yes, each individual is responsible for their behaviour. Though the constant use of tech and its habit-forming effects can exacerbate an existing problem. We’ve seen people leave a one-hour coaching session, immediately get out their phone and go straight to their emails! The thought of turning off the phone or leaving it in a desk drawer is not one that occurs naturally in a world driven by Wi-Fi.

Frequently we see that technology, especially the workplace calendar, is allowed to dictate senior leaders’ day or week. They consult Outlook in the morning before anything else, so from the off, appointments and emails have the run of the day. What’s more, in our society of high-speed internet, mobile phones, emails, texts, WhatsApp, 4G, and the like, we’re always on. People expect a quick, if not an immediate, response and this fuels constant busyness.

It would be wrong to suggest that senior leaders are technology-addicted and have no control over what fills their day. There are many reasons for allowing tech to dictate. A lack of trust can be one; checking emails might be a sign of ‘Oh goodness, what has happened in my absence?’ playing out in action. A lack of conscious thought, simply checking emails by habit, could be another.

So, why does this behaviour persist, if it’s so undesirable? Like the veteran motorbike rider, back on the stunt bike after numerous injuries, there must be something that compels this behaviour, despite its detrimental impact. If it’s not something that is comfortable to explore alone, a coach can help leaders to establish what might overpower the ‘benefits’ of being busy.

Alternatives to being busy

As with almost any development initiative, improving consciousness is the foundation. In order to stop the technology from taking over, these few steps will help you feel more in control:

  1. Sit down with a notebook at the start of the day. What do you want to achieve? List one or two achievable things that only you can do.
  2. Push back. Open emails and then critically assess what needs to move, be postponed, be delegated, or not involve you, in order for you to achieve what you need to?
  3. If you’re invited to a meeting, question why. If the organiser can’t answer, it’s unlikely that you need to go! Often, email and calendars are set up to auto invite people. We’ve even worked with leaders who on questioning more junior staff, have discovered that they don’t know why the senior person attends the meeting!

A coach can hold you accountable and encourage you to make commitments to yourself. By saying ‘No’, you can gain back time that allows you to take steps to push the business forwards. Not only is it good for the organisation overall, it’s good for the way you feel too. Ask yourself, what’s the difference in feeling, when you look back at the end of the day and see that you’ve done what you set out to do?

How senior leaders can make the best use of their time

In any sized business, meetings have the potential to waste a lot of time! The bigger the organisation, the more people in the meeting, the bigger the potential for time waste. Where you do attend a meeting, ensure the following is clear: actions to be allocated and to whom, deadlines for when they will be actioned, and holding those people accountable at the next meeting.

One of the most powerful things that leaders can do to regain time, is to reduce the organisation’s reliance on them. As David Marquet says, if ‘you’re always the answer-man, you can never go home!’ As a captain of a nuclear submarine, Marquet trained his people to think like him, and better than him. He empowered his reports to make decisions.

As a leader, your job is to make the next wave of leaders ready and confident to step into their own ability. They will follow your lead. So if you don’t set a good example, then neither will they.

Finally, it’s much better for your own performance if you can be less busy. It’s much easier to think strategically when you haven’t been in back to back meetings and you’re not trying to cram everything into a two-hour window at 6 pm. When the senior team perform well, it tends to follow that the organisation does too.

Tackling all of these items is daunting. And when you’re on the go, the mere thought of making time for them can be a stretch. Farscape is experienced in working with senior leaders on issues as diverse as time management or people development. With coaching we can help you make the best use of time, to get to the bottom of why you don’t let go of certain tasks, and to develop people so that you are more effective.

Remove yourself from the equation to give yourself more time

Senior leaders are naturally busy and in demand. More often than not, it isn’t the tech, or the business tools, or the ticking clock that get in the way! It’s the senior leaders’ decision making. Coaching can help you review what needs to change. You could be surprised at the time available. If you’re intrigued, or feel that you could do things differently, why not give us a call?

This blog has been inspired by interactions we have had with senior people over many years. And to conclude our thoughts, we’d like to throw the opening question back to you: is a “lack of time” a genuine issue or a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy? Over the next week, why not review the appointments in your calendar and review the email requests for your time critically as mentioned above? What do you discover? Are there any challenges or unexpected hurdles that crop up? We’d be fascinated to hear what you find out. We’re on 0117 370 1800 – call us to discuss and perhaps if there’s an opportunity for us to support you with those challenges, we can find a way. Because as a senior leader, you’re one of the business’ most expensive assets – don’t let a lack of time stop you from being its most effective too.

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