How Senior Leaders Make Space for Reflection

By Melissa Karz
Partner, Next Step Partners

Reflection is a bit like meditation. We all know that it’s a good practice, yet in my 18 years of working with leaders, virtually everyone struggles to do it regularly. We’re all juggling ever-growing demands, making it really difficult to commit the time on a regular basis for deep thinking. 

When we fail to make space for meaningful reflection, we aren’t able to see and take advantage of opportunities. We are more prone to becoming overwhelmed because our never-ending “to do” list dictates where we put our attention. By the time we’re finished working through the list, time is up and none of it went to reflection or identification of those opportunities that need some deeper thought to recognize. We react to conditions rather than proactively create them. 

Regular reflection helps us make smarter decisions, boost performance, learn from our experiences and come up with more innovative solutions to our challenges. If you struggle to make reflection a regular part of your week, this article offers six strategies to get started.

Reflection Leads to Better Performance

Much has been made of the importance of slowing down and stepping back. Research reported in Harvard Business Review’s article Why Organizations Don’t Learn found that employees who spent 15 minutes at the end of the day reflecting about lessons learned performed more than 20% better after 16 days than those who did not reflect. A UK study found similar results — participants who were prompted to use their commute to think about a plan for their day were happier, more productive and less burdened than those who didn’t.

But even when we realize that we need to carve out time for reflection, most of us struggle to do it with regularity. The workday of the typical senior executive is full of interference, interruptions and unpredictability. 

My client, Linda, an SVP at a major entertainment company, was desperate for time to step back and think so that she could show up more confidently and intentionally for high-stakes meetings and add the level of value she wanted. Trying to pause at work was impossible with unplanned meetings and endless phone calls / email / Slack messages that needed her response. 

Mark, head of operations at a growing tech company, had received feedback from his CEO that he needed to be more strategic. Mark understood how important it was, but he was so busy putting out fires all day, he had no bandwidth for forward-looking strategy. 

Likewise, Beatrice, head of a major design firm, increasingly found herself too mired in the weeds and details of running the business to think creatively and come up with the unique ideas she was known for and most enjoyed generating. Her attempts to schedule reflection fell flat. 

Here are some key strategies that helped Linda, Mark, Beatrice and other senior leaders to reflect more regularly and effectively.

1 | Reflection needs to be scheduled and protected on your calendar.
When George Shultz was secretary of state in the 1980s, he carved out one hour each week for quiet reflection. He would close the door and tell his assistant to interrupt him only if one of two people called, “my wife or the president.” He said it was the only way he could find time to think about the strategic aspects of his job. If the Secretary of State can find time to take an hour to reflect while navigating all of the trouble spots of the world at the highest possible stakes, why can’t you?

2 | Experiment with location.
Many people need to get out of the office to be in the right headspace to reflect. Both Linda and Mark started working from home for a few hours each week and found it offered the space they needed to get ahead and think proactively. Some people use the drive home from work each night for reflection. Others combine reflection with a daily lunchtime walk. Regardless of where your place is, try to be consistent with doing your reflection in that physical space.

3 | Experiment with timing.
Morning people often gravitate to reflection in the early hours, when they have more energy. People with more energy at night might prefer to journal as a part of their nightly wind down routine. (Folks who do this claim that it actually primes the unconscious mind to come up with ideas during sleep.) As for cadence, you may find that 15 to 30 minutes a day works for you. Someone else may prefer to set aside a two hour chunk each week. Warren Buffet reportedly sets aside all of Tuesday for thinking time.

Keep in mind that if you are able to integrate reflection into something you already do, you will be much more likely to do it. As with developing any habit, it’s best to start small and build from there.

4 | Set yourself up for success.
Reflection can look many different ways. Beatrice was an off-the-charts extrovert and was much more effective when thinking out loud. Locking herself in her office after most of the team had left for the day didn’t work for her. She found success and felt more energized only when she enlisted a thought partner to help her reflect.

5 | Experiment with structure.
Try both unstructured and structured reflection. In one session, you might turn on music, set a timer for 15 minutes and be open to what comes up. Writing out your thoughts long-hand can get you thinking more creatively.

In other sessions, you might experiment with developing a set of questions to help spark insights. For example:

  • How did I think the meeting (or project) would go?
  • How did it actually go? How were my assumptions right? How were they wrong?
  • What did I learn in terms of what worked/went well, didn’t? What did I learn about myself, team, organization, others?
  • What do I want to carry forward? What will I do differently next time? What will this look like? What will the impact be?
  • What do I still need to understand?

Alternatively you might want to focus on a single, powerful question, such as one of the following:

  • What’s the most important thing for me to focus on right now?
  • What will happen if I don’t focus on it?
  • What am I not thinking about that needs attention?
  • What have I learned today?
  • What will I do next?
  • What has been preventing me from thinking about the things I want to be focusing on? How can I unlock that barrier?
  • What have I allowed myself to prioritize instead? How is this serving/not serving me?
  • Who can I reach out to for help or support?
  • What do I want to look back on and see that I’ve accomplished in the next day / week / month ahead?

To help you start a weekly reflection practice, we’ve developed a one-page leadership journal with five powerful questions for any leader. Printing it out and using it to reflect each week can help you feel more capable, confident and in control. Download it below.

Weekly Leadership Reflection Journal
Next Step Partners Reflection Journal


6 | Pay attention to your mindset and assumptions.
If you have a hard time establishing and sticking with the habit, you may have to identify an unproductive mindset, belief or assumption such as (“I don’t have time” or “reflection is a waste of time”) and try a new, more productive mindset. I often see clients get hung up on the assumption that “learning only happens by doing.” In these cases, adopting a “both, and” mindset is important (e.g. learning both by doing and by reflecting are valuable modalities).

In Mark’s time at his company, he had never worked from home—a place where he could truly set his own agenda and focus on more strategic activities. When we first talked about the idea of working from home, the idea was uncomfortable because he assumed that if he wasn’t physically in the office, things would go amok.  

We created a “safe test” for him that included two elements: 

  • He communicated with this team to prepare them for his experimental “at home” workspace. 
  • He delegated some new items to team members, exhibiting a new level of trust in them, and created accountability with me.  

How did it go? For the first time, Mark was able to step back strategically for a few hours and get his mind out of the weeds. His team demonstrated that they could hold down the fort. As importantly, the process of delegating more to his team empowered his team and helped him build more trust in them. 

In Summary

In my practice, I’ve noticed a difference in the leadership abilities of my clients who take time to reflect on a regular basis as opposed to those who don’t. Those who do prioritize reflection show up differently. By bringing more vision and innovation, they add more strategic value with stakeholders and organizations and are able to see possibilities from a calmer place. 

Reflection is a personal practice and there’s no one-size-fits all approach. You’ll have to experiment to find what works for you. What’s important when trying to create any sustainable change is that you have clarity on your change goal and what matters to you most about that goal. 

Where my clients get tripped up is when they over-focus on doing reflection right, which can often end up inhibiting their performance. Instead, ask yourself the question, “What’s one thing I can do to create a reflective practice for myself? 

These strategies will give you a good starting point. What better time than the start of the year to craft this experiment!




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