Being Proactive Vs. Reactive

Your colleagues are used to it, more or less – the sight of you rushing through the office door, phone to your ear, just moments away from opening file cabinet drawers and thumping file folders on your desk. It's never long before someone calls on the office line, setting the stage for a constant succession of client calls all day long. Despite the harried scene, undaunted employees begin lining up outside your door, wanting "just" five minutes of your time. Right.

Small-Business Owners Double as Firefighters 

It's like any other day in your life as a small-business owner: Everything is important. Everything and everyone needs your immediate attention. You're in constant motion, reacting as best as you can to put out one fire before another one erupts.

With each passing hour, you entrench yourself in a management style you swore you would avoid since reading Stephen Covey's landmark business book – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – for the first time. Since then, perhaps your views have leavened somewhat because now you know: If you don't put out the fires, who will?

Part of running a business means reacting to events. It's part of your job description.

Still, one of these days, you hope to be able to describe yourself as a proactive manager. It even sounds like a positive thing to be. And you know the process begins with renewing your commitment to making the transformation and trying to adopt new habits to lead you there.

Reactive Managers Move With Purpose

By now, you could probably write your own book on reactive leadership, though it gets an almost universal black eye from academics, time management consultants and authors like Covey. Definitions like this one don't exactly advance the cause:

"Reactive management is a strategy in which problems are dealt with after they arise, without planning for the long run."

Of course, not every small-business owner spends his day ricocheting off the walls like a ball in a pinball machine. But the reactive style is often marked by activity, if not perpetual chaos. Many reactive managers may profess to dislike the stress linked to their management style. But they also become somewhat hooked on the adrenaline high of moving from one demanding task or situation to another.

If they were to contribute a chapter on reactive leadership, they would almost certainly include some words about the redeeming virtues of being reactive:

  • They are excellent problem-solvers.
  • They are good at dealing with "curve balls" and thinking on their feet.
  • They adapt well to changing circumstances.
  • They don't wallow in setbacks. They soldier on.
  • They are excellent at navigating a crisis.

Proactive Managers Own "the Vision Thing"

Reactive managers share one important trait with their proactive peers: They both sharpen their skills through practice. Neither are born. Both evolve.

But becoming a proactive manager takes more than repetition. It takes steely determination, discipline and hard work. The learning curve only begins with reading books like Covey's. It then requires making a conscious effort to integrate the tips you read about into the day-to-day gyrations of your business.

Some definitions make the achievement genuinely aspirational:

"Proactive management is a strategy that believes in planning for the future and recognizing and preventing any potential problems before they arise. It (is about) envisioning the future and working towards achieving it."

At their best, proactive managers:

  • Are strategic thinkers;
  • Embrace long-term planning and involve their employees in the process;
  • Unite people with varying skills and focus them on a common cause;
  • Encourage innovative approaches to business challenges;
  • Keep a trained eye on their competitors and seize new opportunities.

Reaction, Action Takes Four Forms

Although Covey used different words, he drew a stark picture of the differences between being reactive and proactive with his time-management matrix. Broken into four quadrants, it identified:

  • Urgent and important tasks, or those that include deadline-sensitive projects and crises;
  • Not urgent but important tasks, such as strategic planning, relationship-building, training and education and personal development;
  • Urgent but not important tasks, including phone calls, meetings and interruptions; and
  • Not urgent and not important tasks, which for many people usually include internet and social media browsing — and maybe playing video games.

A Quadrant Beckons

Many professionals would join small-business owners in saying that they spend most of their days addressing tasks in the first and third quadrants. And Covey understands the appeal, not to mention the necessity:

"Urgent matters are usually visible. They press on us; they insist on action. They're often popular with others. They're usually right in front of us. And often they are pleasant, easy, fun to do. But so often, they are unimportant!"

The second quadrant - where "not urgent but important tasks" are found - typifies proactive management. Undertaking a shift to this quadrant may begin with a Covey mantra:

"The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule but to schedule your priorities."

So what's a priority? A proactive manager would say, "the future." In this spirit, begin your shift to a proactive style with five sensible ideas.

1. Delegate Less Important Tasks to Others

There must be something that is needlessly consuming too much of your time. Like many small-business owners, you may insist there's "nothing" you can delegate. If so, try a little experiment: Call in your closest subordinate and ask what task she would like to take off your shoulders and "run with." Her answer may surprise you – and free up some time in your day.

2. Enter a "Proactive Thinking Zone" Every Day

Yes, you'll always have "fires" to put out. But what about the rest of your day? How much time can you set aside every day for planning? Strategic planning is a little like exercise; you'll get more out of both activities if you spend small amounts of time each day rather than a marathon session only once per month. Devoting even 15 minutes a day to planning – or the other activities in quadrant two – will help get your brain attuned to thinking beyond the moment.

3. Engage Your Two Greatest Assets: Your Employees and Your Customers

Round up your employees for regular brainstorming sessions, if you're not already tapping this huge idea source. Emphasize a low-pressure, no-idea-is-too-out-there environment to kick-start their creativity. Meanwhile, if you're not committed to an inbound marketing strategy, get your marketing team in high gear to develop one. While the strategy is designed to bolster sales, it also should give you the information you need to make sure your product or service stays relevant in the eyes of your customers. Customers usually aren't bashful about telling a company what they want – insights that can help you develop a proactive initiative.

4. Monitor Your Competition

Social media makes it relatively easy to read about your competitors through their posts and blogs. Of course, you want to gather "intel" to help you retain your competitive advantage. But watching their moves – what they say, where they go, who they're talking about – could spark ideas you could use to make a proactive move of your own.

5. Take Risks

Like many small-business owners, you know about risk. You probably left a full-time job to start your own business - one of the greatest risks anyone can take in life. But it may have been a while since you've taken another. Financial responsibilities have a way of dulling the luster of risk. This said, business books like Covey's laud the benefits of risk-taking - not the careless, reckless variety but the same deliberate, methodical variety you probably undertook before you left that full-time job.

Proactive management requires risk-taking, too, even in baby steps, at first, as you move slowly outside your comfort zone. It should be worth it. Says Covey:

"Your commitment to achieving what matters most will become the foundation for tremendous accomplishments and contributions. You will become the change you seek to make."