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Don’t Just Manage Time…Harvest It: Rethinking Time for Leadership and HR Development

Dave Ulrich /

Time is both the same and different for everyone. While everyone has exactly the same number of seconds, minutes, and hours in a day, week, month, or year, each person defines and uses time differently. Without a doubt, time is a leader’s scarcest resource, so we ought to probe how to think about and use time.

In the Western world, the image of time is linear. Time begins and ends around an event, and seconds lead to minutes to hours to days in order to frame the use of time. In this linear world, time is a scarce and discrete asset that once spent is gone, so we strive to spend it wisely (make daily to-do lists), manage it (focus on first things first), and track and monitor it (manage our calendars with discipline). Those who develop this linear time management mindset seek efficient use of time as a resource.

However, time can take on another image, one sourced from the East. In this world, time is cyclical. Time is not scarce and discrete but cumulative. Previous events become part of the present and future. When I see a former college roommate after many years, time stops and our past relationship shapes our present conversation. When I listen to a meaningful song from my past (for me, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”), the emotions connected to that past re-emerge in the present.

Eastern Cyclical View of Time (Neolithic Tradition)

In the West, we manage time and try to do it more efficiently; in the East, we harvest time and try to do it more abundantly. Imagine you received $100 to spend every day, but at the end of the day, it was gone forever, never to be recovered. You would likely endeavor to spend this money quickly before it disappeared. Alternatively, imagine that you received the $100 each day but could invest it and accumulate it and the interest, choosing when and how to access it in the future. In this case, you seek to invest wisely so that future earnings could appreciate. (Appreciation to my wife, Wendy, for this metaphor.) Time can be either an asset to be managed and spent or a resource that can be invested and harvested.

Implications of Time Images for Organization and Leadership

These two views of time shape organization, leadership, and HR work as shown in this table:

In today’s chaotic and fast-changing business context, we are tempted to respond only by matching the pace of external change with our internal speed (e.g., see Flash Boys by Michael Lewis). There is a time to move faster (tasks associated with administrative and routine work) and a time to act more thoughtfully (tasks associated with thinking, learning, and relationships). Doing the wrong things faster will not lead to success. Our colleague Gordon Hewitt has taught, “If you are on the road to hell, you don’t really want to go faster.”

Time management shows up in the management agenda. Leaders are encouraged to manage their calendar, be first movers, remove inefficiencies, shorten cycle times, and move quickly. Their time is monitored by where they spend it, whom they meet with, and how long they devote to activities; they endeavor to spend increasingly less and more efficient time on activities.

Harvesting time shifts our focus from activities to insights and relationships. Leaders are encouraged to ponder, learn, and create a narrative that brings the past and folds the future into the present. Your time reflects what you have learned, where you want to go, and what relationships you have nurtured. True strategic, organization, and leadership agility is not just going faster but smarter, not counting what you do but being mindful about why you do it.

There is a time to manage time—to set priorities, to focus attention, to move quickly. But there is a time to harvest time—to learn, to build on the past, to create a future, to do the right things.

Implications for Development

Approaches to leadership development is one of the most obvious settings in which to contrast these two views of time. When the goal is time management, training investments are driven by duration. An old American TV show called “Name That Tune” required contestants to identify a song with fewer and fewer notes for a clue. Today, some training programs are done this way; instead of two weeks of training, can you complete the training in one week? Three days? One day? Four hours? A five-minute podcast? Or with 53 seconds (the average session duration for the traffic of a Google search)? This speed training (like speed dating) blitzes through headlines as fast as possible, exposing participants to idea highlights. Participants barely glimpse an idea before moving to the next one and yet are expected to grasp the whole concept; like watching movie previews or sporting game highlights and claiming the full movie or sport experience. But at best, participants leave trainings with an introduction to a vocabulary.

With harvesting time as the objective, training takes on a different cadence and outcome. Instead of racing through a topic, participants learn to understand the past, present, and future of an idea so that they can adapt it to their setting and claim it as their own. An idea becomes like a hologram that can be explored from the outside-in and the inside-out to fully understand it. Participants learn how to learn so that they can create future ideas. In the training, participants often establish a community of like-minded colleagues who not only share best practices today but create relationships that can be drawn on in the future. Participants leave trainings not only with a vocabulary but an ability to form complete and new thoughts and a network to stimulate that process into the future.

At the University of Michigan and at The RBL Group, we offer two-week, or eleven-day, development experiences for HR professionals. We are completely aware of the enormous time commitment and opportunity costs to attend these events. But we are not as interested in flashing images and highlights of how HR delivers value as we are in developing future HR professionals who can create a new future for HR. We seek to harvest our training time, not optimize by shortening it.

Time: am I managing it or harvesting it?