In our workplaces today, it is very easy to be reactive. Within minutes, your calendar can fill up with meetings initiated by others, leaving you precious little time to do any actual work.
Urgent requests land on your desk, requiring you and your team to rush to complete them. People start screaming and you need to scramble to make them stop.
Being reactive is easy, because you just ride the wave that other people have created for you. Proactive leadership takes work, because you need to carve out time in your day to focus on it.
Reactive vs. Proactive Leadership
Reacting to problems that occur throughout your day doesn’t really take much effort.
It’s easy to do, because you simply need to focus on the highest priority problem, or complete work that others have put on your desk.
It’s like being on a rollercoaster. There isn’t much you can do, you just need to ride it out until it stops.
Proactive leadership is about taking time to plan, improve how your team works and putting measures in place to prevent problems before they happen.
Proactive leadership is about identifying areas of risk for your team, and working on measures that will reduce their impact, or stop the problems happening altogether.
Breaking Down the Cult of Busy
I feel that there is a common misconception in many workplaces, that people should be filled up with work 100% (or 120%) of the time.
Part of this comes from being involved in the “Cult of Busy“, where people try to demonstrate their worth by showing they are the hardest working.
You can hear the catch-cry of the Cult of Busy in the corridors of every workplace.
People will tell you they started work really early, and finished really late. They’ll tell you how they “Worked all night on this presentation” or “Were in back to back meetings all day”.
The Cult of Busy exists because it makes people feel important. It has become a competition in workplaces everywhere, as people scramble to be the most busy.
There is only one problem. Busy does not equal productive. Spending more time at work doesn’t necessarily make you more valuable.
Everywhere you go, leaders are wasting time sitting in meetings where they aren’t required, and working on things that nobody really cares about.
If you are stuck in the no-win cycle of trying to be the busiest, you will have precious little time to be a proactive leader.
For more on this, read: How Leaders Can Stop Wasting Time at Work.
Aiming For 80 / 20
The goal should not be to work flat out for your entire day as soon as you enter the building.
We do our best work on the “Not Urgent, but Important” tasks, because we have time to think, plan and execute the job well.
For more about the Urgent-Important matrix, read this post: How to Be More Productive at Work: A Simple Tool for Leaders.
When you spend all your day working reactively, you are usually satisfying other people’s priorities. Proactive leadership means working some of the time on your own team’s priorities which result in improving how the team functions.
I believe 80/20 to be a good balance to strive for. Without aiming for the 20 per cent, you and your team are just standing still. You are running on the hamster wheel of work, never really getting anywhere.
On the other hand, if you can proactively improve your processes, skills or the tools that your team uses to get work done, you’re making progress. You might never achieve 20%, but at least aiming for it means you’ll be thinking proactively about how to improve.
This is proactive leadership, because you are future-proofing your team and reducing the chance of issues occurring.
There will always be reactive work to do, but proactively improving your team means you will be in a better place to complete it, without panic.
What Should Proactive Leaders Work On?
There are many things a proactive leader could do to future proof their team. Here are some ideas.
Address Your Key Person Risks
Are you relying on a single team member to perform key tasks that only they can do? Perhaps it’s time to document the steps involved in this work, or start cross-training your team.
Understand and Improve Your Processes
Do you know how your team operates and gets work done? Could things be improved? It might be time to standardise how work is done in your team, and ensure everybody knows about it.
Read more about this here: Why You Need to Understand Your Team Process.
Reduce Manual Labour
If your team is constantly performing manual tasks, look at your systems. Removing common manual steps in your team’s work is likely to result in big efficiency gains, when you add them up over time.
Importantly, removing manual work enables your team to work on more valuable tasks.
Build Your Network
The stronger your personal network in the workplace, the more likely you are to hear about events that may impact you and your team.
Keep an ear to the ground and don’t get caught by surprise.
Keep In Touch With Your Team
Proactive leaders make time to meet with their team members frequently. This helps them to identify team issues before they become big problems, as well as plan for development opportunities for the team.
You might read the points above and think “Leaders should be doing this anyway”. I agree with you. Unfortunately, working reactively often takes precious time away from proactive tasks.
Also remember – proactive leaders don’t need to go it alone. Your team can help you work on many of these future-proofing opportunities. These tasks may provide them with some variety that they are currently lacking in their roles.
Don’t aim to be flat-out busy all day. Time needs to be allocated for work that will move your team forward.
Being on the merry-go-round is fun, but once you’ve gone around once, you’ve seen it. Why not try a different approach?
Do you have challenges being more proactive at work? Let me know your stories in the comments below!
Alternatively, if you'd like to know more or need some help on this topic, simply send me a private message through my contact page: