The Value of “Margin” in a Leader’s Life: Why being less structured may lead to better business results.

Some of our best work will be done when we least require or expect it.

Recently I’ve been thinking a great deal about the concept of “margin” as part of my business life. I’ve had quite a bit of time away from the office recently. It has been time on the job, but time away from the list of tasks and responsibilities that “being at my desk,” “on my phone” or “glued to my calendar” seem to dictate when I’m in the office.

Margin is usually defined as the difference between the volume of work we must do and the capacity for work or time we are willing to commit to the work. But I’d like to slightly alter that definition to be a portion of our allotted work time that we don’t allocate to any specific task or activity, but commit to leave open as margin that can be filled by the unexpected or unplanned.

Using this definition, I’d like to explain the three valuable gifts of margin I’ve learned.

1. A recent trip with one of my senior leaders included an extensive amount of time “on the job” but not “at our desks.” We shared meals, walks to meetings, time in the airport as well as time with clients. In these times, we talked about business but also about our personal lives. I learned new things about this associate that helped me understand their motivations and the challenges they face in life and work. In short, we built some relationship in the margin that would have been hard or even impossible to gain anywhere else.

2. A second benefit of margin was the unstructured time to talk about business and brainstorm without much expectation of immediate action. Without the pressure of a hard stop to our meeting time we discussed business topics important to both of us until there really wasn’t anymore to discuss and with limited takeaways which would have turned our conversation into more to-do’s.

3. A final benefit of margin was what I would call “serendipity” which is defined as “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.” Without a specific meeting agenda or objective to meet, our conversations sometimes turned to interesting ideas and thoughts about all kinds of topics. These conversations in some mystical way will now become part of how I navigate forward in my business and personal life. The ideas and thoughts shared will somehow be magically grabbed from memory at just the right time to address a need or opportunity that presents itself in the future.

The daily demands of business are great and our response is to attempt to get more and more done. But the answer really is not to do more tasks or have more meetings, but to both work hard at the tasks and also create margin in our business lives, trusting that some of our best work will be done when we least require or expect it.

photo credit: Tadie88 cafe…Sassis The Grove Carshalton Surrey via photopin (license)

About Jack Hollister

Since 1997, Jack has led The EA as its president, developing the overall direction of The Association and managing its day-to-day activities. He also trains and consults in the areas of leadership development, strategic planning and the utilization of the DISC profile for team-building purposes. In his spare time, Jack enjoys spending time with his family, fishing, and golfing.