Chartered psychologist and strategist Dr Paul Taffinder, dubbed the “CEO Whisperer”, is widely known and respected in the business world as the founder and managing partner of Taffinder Consulting, which specializes in CEO advice on strategy, leadership and organizational performance.
Taffinder is also an award-winning business author whose critical insights into leadership have earned him best-seller status.
Outside of his work life, however, his passion is for sci-fi and fantasy fiction and, fulfilling a life-long ambition, he has just published an epic trilogy of novels—The Dream Murderer Cycle. While many executives may think they are simply too busy to indulge a passion project, Dr Taffinder says that this investment can reap significant benefits, not only personally but professionally. Perhaps it’s time, he says, to rediscover your interests outside of the office.
When I was four years old, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I have no idea why. But the idea stuck with me and I started writing full-length novels at the age of nine.
Thirty years later, a business advisory career in strategy firms and the ‘Big 4’ eventually led me to found my own consultancy, supporting CEOs and their top teams in executive effectiveness and organizational performance.
The writing, however, continued. I had four business books published, including the best-selling ‘Big Change’, winner of the Business Management Book of the Year— although my involvement in creating fiction never waned.
In truth, the idea of completing a grand novel was always drawing me into reading widely and studying new disciplines, alongside the day-to-day needs of demanding CEO clients.
Eventually, in a sustained effort of writing, I completed, not the single novel I wanted to publish, but a trilogy. The Dream Murderer Cycle, a post-apocalyptic science fantasy, is now out and published.
Many friends, and not a few clients, asked whether writing fiction was not a distraction from running a business. That got me thinking. For me, having a project that is a passion and is a realm away from the corporate world is actually hugely beneficial.
The same is true for any executive, especially CEOs. And there is sound psychological research to back this. Two aspects seem to make a positive difference:
- Intellectual curiosity about a wide range of things other than the business; and
- Running with a passion that takes you into other fields.
We know that intellectual curiosity and openness to experience are personality facets that mean individuals are more receptive to a range of both external and internal (mental) sources of information.
Executives who are low on the personality dimension of openness never fully capitalize on the ideas, concepts and innovations available to their raw intellectual power. In short, being smart and being an influential executive only get you partway.
Naturally, having strengths in other personality facets, like conscientiousness and achievement striving, really matter too, but on their own they are like a powerful sports car poorly tuned and underperforming. In my own profiling of individual CEOs, these personality patterns are often stark and go a long way to explaining why certain senior people fall short of their own high standards and expectations.
You might challenge me that the real idea-generation and receptivity to innovation happens in the teams below the CEO. True. But it generally follows that executives who are more closed to new activities, concepts and diversity of thought, no matter their drive and discipline, fail to properly build the culture and climate necessary for employees to push knowledge barriers forward in creative and breakthrough ways.
The good news is that you can, over time, modify your behaviour to boost the range of sources of information and your receptivity to new ideas, values or experience.
Some executives recognize this, but default to briefings or expert input within their own corporate or industry sphere. They mistake more for different. Still, that is a good starting point.
I usually advise my clients to broaden their available sources of intellectual and emotional stimulation. Sometimes this means giving yourself permission to seek out and draw in perspectives that seem off-beam or atypical—but that’s the point: break the career ladder rules.
Even this approach, however, cannot overcome an executive role that is stale, resulting in narrow thinking, constrained decision-making and a cautious culture down the organization.
That is why it is important to make the effort to step away from the business and develop a passion for pursuits in another realm entirely: theatre, music, sailing, art or any endeavour that shifts your mindset and occupies it in full.
Witness Elon Musk’s dream to explore space and how it has turned into a separate business venture. Some CEOs see this, helpfully, as refreshing and reinvigorating their corporate selves.
Is this all too time-consuming for executives who have businesses to run, committee papers to read and challenges aplenty across the corporation? It seems so.
But when I have done time analysis of executives’ diaries, invariably I find that (a), they are not aware of how exactly they spend their time; (b), how their priorities and time expenditure line up; and (c), how to free space in their diaries for more productive effort.
Often they are over-focussed on operational matters (the most pressing, regularly occurring issues) and neglect strategic thinking (frequently relegated to around 2% of their time).
Carving out time is relatively straightforward; maintaining discipline to keep it that way is not.
Yet understanding where your time goes and then actively managing it is a vital skill for executives. Travel is a good opportunity to devote time to a passion project—instead of only catching up on emails and committee papers.
Why does all this matter? The evidence is compelling. Executives with a broader, more open frame of reference see these personal and corporate benefits:
- Bringing organizational challenges into better perspective
- Better integration of opposing interests and handling of conflict
- Improved commitment to decisions
- Enhanced creativity and context for innovation
- Mutual understanding between disparate groups
- More effective problem-solving
This last point is critical. Executives who have built a more open, idea-diverse and curious outlook are themselves better problem-solvers who ask more penetrating questions and tend to set the context in their teams for superior problem-definition and solution generation.
I have discovered this myself in the years I spent working on my own passion—researching and writing the Dream Murderer trilogy.
I see corporate issues from a broader perspective, ask strategic questions of CEOs in ways they haven’t considered and link ideas, concepts and commercial value in novel ways.
I combine psychology, strategy and organizational change with ideas from Greek and Roman history, military lessons, science fiction predictions and the endless possibilities of creativity.
Like many executives, I have ambition and work-discipline in profusion. Combining that with fanatical curiosity has been an astonishing windfall.