The Pursuit of Less

Given today’s hurried nature, taking time to read a business journal such as Talent Managementcan be an intricate game of chess for most overcommitted business leaders.

Growing talent management demands — such as managing the organization of talent in emerging markets, having to hire hoards of top talent, or meeting rising growth targets — leaves hardly any time to even think of sitting down to read anything longer than a few paragraphs.

Indeed, information overload has given way to the era of unstoppable busyness, where leaders are consumed by work.

The solution is simple: Do less.

In his book “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” Greg McKeown argues that people take on too much, and by strategically doing less, business leaders can lower stress levels and add more value to their organizations.

Talent Management spoke further with McKeown on the topic. Edited excerpts follow.

Greg McKeownWhat does it mean to be an ‘essentialist’?

The best way to start getting your head around what it means to be an essentialist is to think about what it means to be a nonessentialist, because we see it everywhere. I was just at a company, a fast-moving, growing company, and its head of talent is responsible for bringing in maybe 700 people a quarter. And the risk as a nonessentialist is that you end up sort of just trying to move so fast in so many directions that you just are sort of exhausted yourself, but also you end up bringing in a lot of B players just to fit them in roles because you’re trying to keep up with the growth. So to be a nonessentialist is someone who is falling, unintentionally, into the undisciplined pursuit of more.

What are some other ways business leaders have become too nonessential?

Well, there’s an executive that I interviewed for the book that was doing award-winning work at one company, and then that company got purchased by a larger, more bureaucratic firm. And in a desire to be a good team player and good citizen of his new company,he found himself saying ‘yes’ to almost everything and everyone without really ever thinking about it.

What he noticed is his stress was going up at exactly the same time as the quality of his work was going down. He almost thought about leaving the company, but then he took what I would call a personal quarterly offsite and really thought more deeply about, ‘What is the very best use of me at this company,’ and in his own words he said he ‘decided to try to retire in role,’ meaning he wanted to think of his work as a consultant within his own company, and therefore become much more selective asking the question ‘What is the very best and highest use of me? What if I was only paid for the value creation that I bring to the table?’

And so that meant that instead of being on every email chain, being on every conference call, going to every meeting he was invited to, he started evaluating every one of them and negotiating every one of them, and he said that in his personal life, he got his life back. He was able to turn off his phone at 6 o’clock, because that had been negotiated; he was able to have dinner with his wife and go to the gym every night. He gained space. And in that space, he was able to create higher value for the company.

At the end of that year, his performance evaluation went up, and he ended that year with one of the largest bonuses of his whole career. So I think that this captures what I think the value proposition of being an essentialist, which is that if you focus on the right few things at the right time for the right reasons, you actually go higher and faster.

The pace and volume of work doesn’t appear to be waning. How can an essentialist realistically survive today?

One thing I would say about this is that the greater the complexity, the more valuable an essentialist. In the simple idea of supply and demand, there is tremendous value in the person who can figure out what is essential [and] remove all the nonessentials so that people can actually know what to focus on and put their energies to it.

So a person who knows how to do that is more valuable than a person who doesn’t, and in a time of … this glorification of the busy, someone who can see through that and get clearer instruction to their team and help them to figure out what is really critical, someone who can produce purer products for their customersbecause they’re focused on what’s just essential and getting rid of all the trivial is more valuable in the marketplace. It is the primary value of a leader or an individual contributor in this era of complexity — and that value will increase as complexity increases.

If someone wanted to start being more essential today, how do they start?

The first thing someone can do is to schedule a personal quarterly off-site. I really started to learn the value of that when I co-designed a class at the design school at Stanford, called ‘Designing Life Essentially.’ I saw these highly talented, highly driven successful people come into this class and find so much value in just creating space to think and to not be just a function of this busyness bubble, with all of its complexity and uncertainty.

 Instead of being owned by that, they were able to create this space. Now we bring executives to an off-site once every 90 days per year, and what we’re really doing is just creating space for people to ask the hard, strategic questions. We know that that’s valuable for executives, an offsite for their teams. Everybody understands the basic logic to that. But I think the same logic can — and should — be applied to the individual.