Why taking time away from work makes you a better leader

Stepping back from the rat race can give fresh perspective, says IBM global consulting boss Mark Foster.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 27 Mar 2019

Less is more. It sounds very zen, but leaders can find it hard to step back from their work. So hard in fact that they overwork and underperform – whether because they stifle their creativity, lose their sense of perspective or succumb to stress.

Recently, Twitter’s Bruce Daisley told us how the latest neuroscience and psychology convinced him to target a 40 hour working week, going for quality over quantity. That may not always be practical in every corporation, but there are other ways of stepping away in order ultimately to achieve more.

As SVP for IBM’s global business services, Mark Foster is a busy man. Indeed, our chance to speak with him came barely minutes after he cleared arrivals at Chicago O’Hare airport. Yet he was keen to talk about the value of having more in your life than just your work.

"It’s hugely important to get a wider experience of the world around you. My tombstone’s not going to say ‘Mark Foster was SVP for global business services at IBM’. I’m not sure what it’ll say but I don’t plan on being remembered for that. When you look back over your life and the impact you’ve had, you want it to be over multiple dimensions," he says.

This can mean a lot of different things. Foster quit a long career at Accenture in 2011, having become chief executive of global markets and management consulting, and for the next five years had a ‘portfolio career’, sitting on boards, blogging regularly and notably serving as the UK Government’s independent commissioner on aid impact, travelling the world to assess what Britain’s £11bn overseas development  spend was achieving.

"It was spending time under trees in villages, in huts, in clinics, in schools, really seeing the other side of life and confronting the difficulty of solving some of these problems. There’s a lot of pressure as a leader from quarterly performance, from the marketplace, that can drive you down a burrow, where you try to run faster and faster down the same path. I think I emerged from this path with an expanded sense of the importance of putting things in proportion," Foster says.

"It helps to stand back from the issues and recognise that while some things can be fixed now, other things are just a bit longer term. The best examples of us solving aid issues around the world were when we didn’t keep changing strategy, but stuck at it consistently and engaged people from the bottom up. There are a lot of analogies to business there."

Taking time out of the corporate rat race is not the only way to gain perspective. It could be sitting on the board of your children’s school, enjoying a regularly hobby or just taking family or personal time, says Foster, whose portfolio career came to an end when he joined IBM in the US in 2016.

"My main tip is compartmentalisation. I've always made it clear, to those who work for me and those I work for, how important it is for me to make time for my family. You just have to be disciplined about switching off when you’re supposed to be switched off."

Image credit: Dmitry Zvolskiy/Pexels

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