Most of my coaching clients are senior leaders in rapidly growing companies, and they often find themselves in the midst of a difficult transition. Previously they were in a position to add value by doing–because they knew the most about the product, or were closer to the customer, or were more experienced than their colleagues, they could simply execute more effectively than everyone around them. But as the company has grown larger and more complex, and as they’ve hired people with greater expertise and stronger functional skills, they find that they’re no longer able to add value in the same way. As I’ve written before,
Instead of simply doing more, sustaining our success as leaders requires us to redefine how we add value. Continuing to rely on our abilities as individual contributors greatly limits what we actually contribute and puts us at a disadvantage to peers who are better able to mobilize and motivate others. In other words we need to do less and lead more. 
A consequence of this shift for my clients is that they often need to re-learn how to think. This may sound absurd–they’re obviously intelligent people whose capacity for strategic thinking has helped them succeed in highly competitive environments. Why would they suddenly need to re-learn this fundamental skill?
In the early stages of a company’s development every problem is potentially fatal.  Startup leaders have very little room for error, but at least they can be less discriminating about which problems to address: All of them. As a company grows, the problems leaders face become more nuanced: There are fewer existential risks and more distractions. Leaders who’ve succeeded by putting out every fire now need to understand that some fires give off a lot of smoke but can safely be deferred (or even ignored), while others will burn down the entire company if left unattended. A different approach to problem-solving is required here, and the leader who continues to try to address every single one quickly finds themselves overwhelmed, working harder than ever while making less progress.
But focusing on the most important problems (and ignoring the merely distracting ones) is just the first step. Such problems rarely lend themselves to the straightforward reasoning that my clients have employed so successfully in the past. This isn’t to say that logic is irrelevant, but it’s insufficient. In the past these leaders had to come up with the right answers–now they have to make sure they’re asking the right questions. And in most cases the answers will no longer be found in the data–problems like this are now solved by more junior people, and the ones that land in a leader’s lap rarely have clear-cut, quantitative solutions. In such cases leaders generally need longer blocks of uninterrupted time, free from distractions, to think creatively and to augment logical reasoning with intuition and inspiration.
And yet this highlights another challenge: A leader’s attention is an extremely valuable resource, one that is constantly in demand.  The larger the organization, the more people who want the leader’s attention, and not necessarily for legitimate reasons: People want the leader in their meeting simply because the leader’s presence makes it a more important meeting. And this only gets worse as the leader grows more senior and takes on more visible roles.
So if you’re a leader, and this sounds familiar, what can you do? Once you’ve recognized that your previous approach to problem-solving is no longer sufficient to meet your needs, you now have to create the space in which you can truly think:
How much time do you need to think? Note that strategic thought isn’t necessarily a linear process. A client of mine regularly schedules 4-hour blocks of time for this work, primarily because it takes about 2 hours for him to get into the right state of mind. If he tried to force the process into a 2-hour block, the effort would be wasted, but because he gives himself enough time to “warm up,” the second half of that 4-hour block is tremendously productive.
Your specific needs may be different, but you probably require more time to think than you needed in the past:
The type of reflective thought that allows us to solve hard problems (and to even understand the nature of these problems in the first place) generally requires some time to allow our minds to wander and to make unexpected associative connections. Creative solutions rarely come when commanded–instead, we spot glimpses of them on the margins of conscious thought, and we invite them to join us. 
How often do you need to think? This is somewhat contingent on the answer to the question above; if you need more time in an unbroken block, other responsibilities will make it harder to protect that time on your calendar. A solution adopted by many of my clients is to schedule varying lengths of time for this work at varying intervals: For example, two hours on Monday morning, 30 minutes at the end of every day, a half-day once a month, and a full day once a quarter.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but the key is what I call defensive calendaring: looking out into the future and putting these events on your calendar first, before other commitments make it impossible to find the time you need.  Note that strategic thinking is one of those important-but-not-urgent activities that won’t happen unless you make it a priority. 
What conditions support your best thinking? A characteristic of environments that help almost all of us think more effectively is freedom from distractions–and in an era of open offices, shared calendars, smartphones, and tools like Slack, it’s increasingly difficult to find such a space, particularly for a leader whose attention everyone is seeking to capture. We all have individual preferences, but a theme I observe in my clients’ approach to strategic thinking is the need for boundaries. This is a topic I’ve often discussed regarding the relationship between work and other domains of life, but it’s equally relevant when it comes to protecting strategic thinking from other forms of work. 
For shorter stints of time it may be impractical to leave the office, so it’s important to have access to spaces in the building in which you won’t be interrupted. (A trend I’ve observed among my clients here in San Francisco is a move back to private offices, particularly when this transition is made easier by relocating offices, and one reason is the need for space that’s more conducive to effective thinking.) But whenever possible it can be uniquely valuable to get out of the building entirely–a hike, a bike ride, or a trip to the spa may be optimal, but even a walk around the block will suffice if that’s all you can do. And be aware that physical boundaries don’t help when we allow ourselves to be constantly interrupted–it’s essential to create a cognitive boundary as well, so at these times disconnect and unplug as much as possible.
Allies and Co-Conspirators
You can’t do this work entirely alone. You’ll need allies, partners who can sit with you (or walk alongside) and play an active role in your thought process. Sometimes it’ll help to enlist a colleague who knows you and your business well; at other times it’ll be important to get a fresh perspective from an outsider. You’ll do much of this work by yourself–don’t try to do it all.
You’ll also need co-conspirators, people who can help create and protect the time and space you need to do this work. This obviously includes executive assistants and other administrative staff, and if you have people in these roles it’s critical that they understand how important this time is and how staunchly it must be defended. But anyone who’s invested in your success as a leader can play a part in this process, and you can help by conveying to them why you’ll be unavailable or slower to respond at certain times.
Finally, bear in mind that it’s unlikely that you’ll reach some magical moment in your career when your calendar’s clear, your inbox is empty, your to-do list is done, and it’s suddenly easy to create the space you need to think. You’re probably going to have to do this the hard way, with a busy calendar, a full inbox, and a list of undone tasks staring you in the face. So start small, see what works, and keep experimenting. 
This is a companion piece to Open Space, Deep Work and Self-Care.
Photo by Philippe Put. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.