By Stefanie Zelkind
“Make one bunny ear, then another, cross them over … nope, not like that. That’s okay. Take a breath and just start again.” It would have been much easier to tie my son’s shoes for him or suggest he wear his old sneakers with the Velcro closures. Letting him tie his cool new lace-up sneakers took longer, produced subpar results and raised my blood pressure (yes, that reminder to take a breath was directed at myself).
As a working mom, I’m always teetering between short-term and long-term wins. We live in such a fast-paced world, rushing from activity to activity, making it hard to think beyond immediate gains. If I can get something done quickly, it’s so tempting to do it, even if it comes at the expense of something important, like building my son’s independence. Sometimes we benefit from taking the long view, focusing not only on the urgent, but also on the important. If urgent work is addressing issues right in front of us, on the surface (throw on the Velcro sneakers!), important work is addressing the issues lying deep, below the surface, i.e., build his confidence so that he can tie his own laces. Important work takes time and demands patience.
I knelt down next to my son and encouraged him to try again. I texted my 9 am appointment to let her know I’d be a few minutes late. I managed a tantrum when the laces just kept slipping through those little fingers. In the moment it felt like I was giving up precious time. But by focusing on the long-term benefits of empowering him to tie his own laces, I helped my son take responsibility for this step of the morning routine, develop mechanisms to manage his frustration and ultimately learn he can tie a mean double knot.
In my work, I often find myself pulled between the temptation of the short-term win and the investment in producing long-term benefits. With the ever-increasing pace of work, it’s not only tempting to go fast, it often feels that I must just to keep up. By working quickly, I not only sidestep the important, but risk getting stuck or tripped up on the urgent. When I’m in a hurry, it’s more likely that I’ll gloss over important details, miss unspoken signals or make mistakes. I must remember that long-term, it’s actually faster if I discipline myself to slow down. Setting the stage for better results down the road, I can go slow now to go faster (or better, smoother, more strategic) later.
When a Wexner Graduate Fellow calls for help with a challenge at school or work, I could tell her straight out what I think she should do. Not only quick and easy, this approach also feeds my ego, allowing me to pat myself on the back for being a smart and effective problem solver. But instead of presuming I have the answers, I try to ask questions – moving from clarifying to probing ones, challenging her assumptions and surfacing underlying issues. Together we often uncover something other than the presenting problem… “ahhh, so THAT’s what’s really going on!” Conversations like this take time; rather than a direct line from A to B, we meander along, taking detours that lead us to the “real” stuff. In so doing, she discovers her own solution(s), strengthening her leadership muscles, which will benefit her for the long-term.
Our approach to programming for our Wexner Graduate Fellowship/Davidson Scholars Program Institutes is built on the idea of going slow to go fast. Having a lot of experience planning and running conferences, I could whip up a solid conference program in a few weeks. Quick and easy, but perhaps not the way to create the best possible program and a huge lost opportunity for teaching and learning. So instead, I work closely with a volunteer committee of Fellows over a period of nine months to conceptualize, plan, execute and then evaluate an Institute of their own making. The resulting program, with shared ownership and responsibility over the Institute, is stronger than if I’d planned it on my own. And Fellows learn a ton along the way about peer leadership, group work, event planning and program design. What we give up in efficiency, we more than make up for in hands-on leadership learning. For nine months, we go slow; for the rest of their careers, these committee members will bring the skills and experience gained through this process to their work.
Indeed, we apply this approach – go slow to go fast – to much of our work at The Wexner Foundation. Each fall, the entire Education Team at the Foundation gathers for a several days-long staff retreat. Inevitably falling in the middle of someone’s crunch time, it never feels like a convenient time to set work aside. It would be easier on everyone’s schedule and workload if we skipped it, no question. But we prioritize this time together to reflect on the past year and plan ahead for the coming one, to connect with one another, to share and learn together, and to engage in the important-but-not-urgent conversations that otherwise get pushed aside. It feels like holy time as we collectively slow down from the rapid pace of our work. Refreshed and energized from a few days of going slow, we return to the office poised to go faster, work smarter and dream bigger – time well-spent for sure.
In a world in which everything moves so quickly, it is hard to slow down. It’s hard to take the long view when short-term wins are so appealing. It’s hard to go deep into adaptive territory when quick-and-easy technical solutions abound. It is hard to be patient when there are so! many! urgent! problems! to address. Of course, there are urgent needs and times when immediate action is necessary. But when we can, appropriately and strategically, push past the “obvious” quick-and-dirty options, we should explore those slower, winding paths towards change. In so doing, we may empower others, create opportunities for learning and growth, engage our stakeholders in meaningful ways, build and cultivate relationships … and grow our own leadership along the way.
Stefanie Zelkind is the Director of The Wexner Graduate Fellowship/Davidson Scholars program. She completed a double Master’s Degree in Nonprofit Management and Judaic Studies at New York University in 2003 as a Wexner Graduate Fellow.
Cross-posted on The Wexner Foundation Blog.