Michael Willard, writer, painter, columnist, entrepreneur
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Chapter Two

Time is Not a Renewable Resource

You probably thought the most important thing in your life were those 33rpm Doris Day records, that bruised baseball signed by Sandy Koufax and, perhaps, your three kids.

The kids are fairly important, assuming they are housebroken, but by far the most important thing in your life is your time. Let's face it; we only have so many ticks in life and then we are out of here. We become great topsoil, or maybe sit on the mantel in a somber urn until the cat accidentally knocks us over. Then, we are damn difficult to extract from the Persian carpet.

The title of this chapter truthfully declares, "Time is not a renewable resource", and it never will be. Popcorn is a renewable resource. If time were renewable, Einstein would have discovered the theory back in the 1930s and we would be, in fact, immortal.

The other day a client called our Moscow office at the exact time he was suppose to arrive. He said he was caught in traffic and would be an hour and a half late. Caught in traffic? Where? London? Tokyo? Admittedly, the traffic in Moscow can be like a colony of freeze-dried ants. However, everyone knows this, and the rule is to leave a little earlier.

The client is not always right. These folks put three people on hold for an hour and a half. They are thieves. They did not take our money; they took our time, which in our business, as the clich? goes, is the same as money. If the transgression had been committed by anyone other than a client, I would have shouted, "Imbeciles." For the record, I use the terms imbecile and cretin in this book with regularity. Believe me, they are polite and G-rated substitutes for words most often used in gangster movies written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Today being inconsiderate of others is a serious and fatal ailment leading to the death of time. It is particularly prevalent in the business world. Most of us value our own time, but we are less considerate of the time of colleagues. It is as if those golden Rolexes are meant only for decoration and, if you are the low-life sort, getting laid by a simple-minded subordinate with a thigh tattoo saying, "Born to eat pizza." They obviously have nothing to do with measuring time and people arriving for meetings at an appointed and agreed upon hour.

This afternoon, shortly before I began this passage, I was scheduled to be on a conference call with London, New York, Denver, Moscow and Kyiv, admittedly a rather tricky bit of organization, given that each is in a different time zone, ranging up to 10 hours difference. With a colleague in my office, we dutifully dialed into the appropriate number at the appropriate time.

"How nice," the client organizing the conference call remarked, somewhat surprised, "you're on time."

"What, you expected me to be drawing my bath at this hour? Why wouldn't I be on time?" (Words thought, but never said.)

In the meantime, I mentally noted the time, and thus there began an awkward silence. The next person to join was five minutes later. Altogether, about 12 people were to join in on the line, including the client in various cities, and a collection of public relations agencies. After nearly 10 minutes of waiting, the sponsor of the call suggested we wait a few more minutes for two other people before we start. Finally, about 15 minutes into the process, the entire gaggle of clients, high-priced consultants, and assistants to consultants were present. The final person to log on spent the next minute bragging about how busy he was, and wondered if the call was really necessary.

Ka-ching. Ka-ching. For those of you who have no sense of word sounds, that's the ring of my mental cash register. Ka-ching. Ka-ching.

My learned colleague was huddled next to me over the telephone. I surreptitiously flashed him the damning estimate I had figured on the calculator: $1,200. Admittedly, the figure was based on a fraction of my own hourly rate of $450, multiplied times the number of callers, with a slight adjustment for the time each logged on. My head gets dizzy with higher math, so please accept this as an approximation to push my point into the twilight zone. Every day in little ways, thousands of business dollars go down the drain.

Tom Bell, current CEO of Cousins, the giant real estate firm in Atlanta, had the unique perspective of viewing time wasted from both the consultant agency viewpoint and from the viewpoint of the client. In the mid 1990s, he left worldwide public relations company Burson-Marsteller, where he had been a co-chairman, for the presidency of Gulf Stream Corp, makers of corporate jets. B-M remained the company's agency during this period.

Within a year or so, Bell returned to agency life as the top honcho of Burson-Marsteller. However, while still at Gulf Stream, he told the story of sitting in on an hour-long conference call with the agency where the main decision made was to have another conference call. Needless to say, when he returned to head up the agency, he preached time-value concepts.

The Goddamit Man

I call the late Geoff Nightingale the "Goddamit man". No, that's not entirely correct; I call him the "GODDAMIT MAN."

Geoff had many assignments over the years for Burson-Marsteller, but the one and only time I met him he was refereeing one of those silly group-gropes in New York aimed at coming up with a mission statement for the company. It was more a practice exercise in teambuilding than useful assignment. In fact, I thought at the time, it was a total waste of time, though it was good to see colleagues that-lacking such get-togethers-rarely had the opportunity to exchange ideas.

The meeting was due to start at 9 a.m., which is relatively normal for these sorts of activities, and people began filing in a few minutes earlier, taking advantage of the coffee, pastries and juice at the table in the back of the room. Moreover, there were the usual small groups of chatter and polite conversation, some of us not having seen one another since the previous and similar boring exercise.

The clock hit 9:10 and I casually glanced at Geoff at the front of the room. He was serenely sitting on a stool, gazing out at the gathering crowd. Then it became 9:15, and Nightingale truly had the continence of a Nightingale, that oh, so small songbird, belonging to the thrush family. The gathering continued with catch-up palaver, snatches of conversation really going nowhere. Frankly, no one was really anxious to begin the session, and Nightingale was a bearded stranger to most of us.

Then, it became 9:20, and absolutely no one was paying attention to Nightingale who apparently in the last five minutes had moved off his perch, and was standing in the center of the room.

"GODDAMIT. GODDAMIT," he shouted.

We all of course took notice, or what notice one can take when one is in shock. Generally, the demeanor of these meetings leans toward a congeniality that would put Sinclair Lewis' famous Mr. Babbitt to shame. This coarse and loud interruption caused coffee cups to rattle on tiny saucers.

"Goddamit," he repeated, a little softer this time. "How dare you waste my time? You have taken 20 minutes from my life." We meekly and quietly made our way to our chairs, sort of like kindergarten children filing back into a classroom after a fire drill.

Geoff's declaration about wasting his time was particularly poignant, though few if any of us in the room realized it at the time. Geoff Nightingale had cancer, and died within the next year.

The Meeting Dance

The meeting dance is more exotic than the African Samba. It is more frenzied than the Cuban Rumba. It is more deadly to an organization than the venomous Mamba. You get the alliterative point.

It begins with a precise meeting time, usually at the top of the hour or at the half hour. A few people timidly gather around the conference table. One person pokes his head in the door, coughs like a cat with a fur ball to get attention, and then quickly retreats, realizing that not all people are present. Then, in turn, another person currently at the table, in one fluid and exquisite move gets up, does a slight curtsy and slowly strolls out the door, usually leaving a pen and paper on the table, a sign he or she will return. This is repeated to the tune of the Virginia Waltz for 15 or 20 minutes, when, quite by accident, all arrive at the same place at approximately the same time. Then, of course, someone's cell phone rings.

The basics of a good meeting never change, sort of like a pair of argyle socks that stay on those stinky feet until the home team's winning streak ends. It is made up of an objective and an agenda on how to get there. Nothing more elaborate. Slides, advanced computer graphics, gee-whiz video equipment are all fluffy add-ons, and generally do no more to move the agenda than chicken soup does for curing a cold. They won't hurt, but they are probably not needed, at least to the extent they are used today.

In fact, one of the men I most admired in the advertising industry is the now departed David Ogilvy of the advertising firm that bears his name and that of Mr. Mather. Of course, Ogilvy belonged to a Neanderthal era, harkening back to the time when a solitary soul could stand in front of the toughest jury in the world - a potential big bucks client, and put his creative case forward without benefit of flashy visuals other than a few posters and storyboards. I would love to have seen it, but I have only read about it, in a book penned from David Ogilvy's own hand, Ogilvy on Advertising.

The Ultimate Sin

It is amazing how many leaders of meetings are late for their own sessions, as if the big boss is so important he can toss money down the elevator shaft.

While I've never had a volcanic eruption like Mr. Nightingale, as described earlier, I have demonstrated my pique with an embarrassing comment, such as, "Mr. Brown, are we interfering with your lunch." However, a word of warning, the experts on these things are quick to suggest, "Nothing is gained by embarrassing a participant; talk to the person privately."

Get real. That's no fun.

Recently, a possible client I coveted was to visit our office. He called at the time of the meeting to say that he would be 20 minutes late, which is one of the seven deadly vices, but perhaps not up there with murder. However, I went into a necessary but not crucial internal meeting with a member of my staff. An hour later, the possible client arrived. However, I refused to cut short my internal meeting, and made him wait for at least 15 minutes. A chorus of you is shouting: Dummy. Dummy. Not really, when I finally did meet with him, he apologized profusely, and we got the business. There is nothing wrong with demonstrating that your time is as valuable as the person from whom you seek business. They will respect you more.

I never think about being late for my own meetings. There are several reasons for this, but I find the most compelling one is that I like the fat salary I pay myself. In addition, I want to occasionally buy the kids new shoes, even if they don't really deserve them and could probably wait for hand-me-downs from big sisters. I know if I'm tardy for my own meeting, I am putting myself in the ludicrous position of stealing from myself by wasting the time of others. I might as well be tossing twenty-dollar bills to the wind.

Also, because monkey does as monkey sees, a late boss -- that Silverback gorilla -- will necessarily result in employees habitually coming in several moments late to a meeting. Taken to its logical conclusion, the business goes bankrupt, and everybody withers and dies of starvation. It is not a pretty sight.

What to do about it?

Geoff Nightingale suggested that the grownups, i.e. those of us who were senior executives, were still in short pants, and the women, maturing somewhat more quickly then men, were barely into training bras. His decision was that if the same happened again in our next session the door would be locked. That, to me, seemed a little like a Br'er Rabbit tossed in the briar patch solution, since most of us would have happily foregone the honor of the meeting.

One chirpy website I visited that knows all the answers to these questions suggested that meetings never start on the hour or the half hour but say, like, 2:08. What were they smoking? That just means the two o'clock meeting you wished to call in the first place, now will not be 2:08 but more like 2:26. This is psychobabble mixed in with horse manure, stirred to the consistency of pure idiocy.

My own favored solution, and I don't think it Draconian, is to suggest that each person who is late has his salary docked by the amount of wasted time he has caused others. As a practical matter, I haven't had to do this, perhaps because virtually all know my attitude toward lateness. I think it should have been one of the original Ten Commandments, up close to the top of the list, and not behind those minor league rules dealing with false idols and coveting neighbors' wives, which we all do from time to time.

This does not mean one is not flexible. Things do come up that call for a change of plans. If one has tried to make it to an appointment in downtown Moscow or Istanbul (both have locations of The Willard Group), a sometimes 20 minute commute can easily turn into an hour and a half commute, seemingly for no rhyme or reason. On the other hand, from time-to-time the traffic parts as if Moses were waving a wand over the Red Sea and what would normally be an hour-long trip becomes a 20-minute jaunt. However, we rail here against the chronically late, those who are late simply because they believe their time is more important than the person or persons they are meeting.

Steal my money, and I can always make more. It's not that hard. Steal my time, and it can never be retrieved.

Noble Rot

You probably thought this chapter was about lateness; which, to an extent it is, but it really has more to do with the wasting of time, and tardiness is merely one manifestation of its collateral damage.

When you reach age 40, you begin thinking about your own mortality. When you reach the 50 marker, you find yourself grabbing the Economist magazine, and turning first to the obituary page, the publications own cemetery for the famous and infamous. At 60, you are in the Yellow Leaf period, quickly heading to that Noble Rot stage. At this point, you are selfishly protective of every gulp of breath. This is not a bad thing.

Not long ago I wrote a book called The Portfolio Bubble: Surviving Professionally at 60. It was all about making the most of one's time, sort of like a metaphorical Heimlich maneuver for those of us who believe life doesn't end when the first grandchild comes along. While recognizing that Sun City, big three-wheelers and shuffleboard courts are fine for a large segment of the population, others of us would rather suck down a soda pop with an arsenic chaser than retire. Until I was almost 50, I could sit and watch automobiles race around a circle via a television screen for half of a Sunday afternoon. I could take in a movie that I knew to be mediocre just for the sake of munching on a big box of popcorn, and I could watch big boys play little boys games such as baseball, realizing perfectly well that a single game in a 160 game plus schedule probably won't make a whole lot of difference in my life. It was interesting to watch Barry Bonds clobber another ball over the fence, and, interesting I guess as to whether he was on steroids when he broke the home run record. Frankly, it will not materially affect my life one-way or the other. Or yours, unless you work for NASCAR or you are the commissioner of baseball.

Don't get me wrong. There is nothing I would like better than to be in the stands behind the third-base line, watching my Atlanta Braves. Going to see a Darlington 500 NASCAR race, and even serving as a member of a pit crew, was the thrill of a lifetime. And I believe movies, unless it is Rocky No. 10, are great entertainment and have a lot to teach about life.

However, as one gets a little older, he or she is increasingly worried about being what I call "late for life". We need to show up for the things we really enjoy, and tune out the humdrum. There is a certain selfishness quotient here, but go ahead, pamper yourself. Take out a piece of paper and write down the things that suck up time, but are truly rewarding to you. Call it your Time Bible, and stick to it.

As we move forward, you will see that this book is not in the least about nose-to-the-grindstone-work-yourself-into-an-early-grave work atmosphere, but one that recognizes current realities, and suggests ways to pace yourself for the long distance run.

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