What Time Are You?

In the professional world, there is no more powerful determinant of individual style, effectiveness, or influence than one’s orientation to time. The topic was touched upon in the Sept. 1, 2012 issue of The NonProfit Times, (Time, Task, and Turf), but this time the powerful construct will get a full airing.

The accompanying chart shows the four distinct orientations to time that human beings display:

  • Yesterday;
  • Today;
  • A few weeks into the future; and,
  • Several years hence.

These are the four typical comfort zones for orientation to time. For individuals there is no right or wrong here, just the outcome of a lifetime of choices (and undoubtedly gene pools). Orientation to time helps determine what we do for a living — and vice versa. It reflects the degree of uncertainty with which we are comfortable, and it lies at the base of our sense of security.

For streetsmart managers, the timeline is a set of guideposts to everyone connected with the organization, from front line workers to managers, executives, board members, funding sources, regulators, and the media. Here’s how to read the messages along the way, and how to use the knowledge to your advantage.



Start with today. Literally. There are in most organizations one or more people whose job-related time orientation stops at five o’clock or whenever their normal workday ends. A direct care worker in a non-clinical setting must have a time orientation that ends with their shift. That’s when their period of responsibility ends, and it is neither fair nor productive to expect them to operate with a different orientation.

Talk with successful direct care workers. Typically the most successful ones will say they enjoy their job because it allows them to grow close to the clients. They’ll describe positive experiences with consumers using phrases such as “just being with them” or “being present” or “here and now.” When plans are made they tend to involve a period of days at most. Any event scheduled for months in advance will seem like a hopeless abstraction until it grows palpably closer. When the shift ends, they go home. They usually don’t get called at home.

Those whose job focuses them on today to the exclusion of almost everything else are tightly bounded. For those most comfortable with the immediate present boredom is not usually a factor because the present moment holds too much interest.


One Month From Today

The manager’s day starts with a quick gulp of coffee because the already-late staff meeting is about to start. Four tasks emerge from that discussion, three of which must be done within two days, and a fourth that is probably already late. The CEO pops her head in and asks a question about the emerging situation involving the local politician from the South Ward, and it turns out that the deadline for the Request for Proposals really is next week, not next month as everyone thought.

Lunch with the CFO has been postponed which is just as well because the conference call has been moved to noon from its original 1 p.m. slot. It looks like that first meeting with the potential new IT management company is going to take more preparation than anyone had thought, and does anyone know why the parking lot gate has been locked for the last hour?

At mid-afternoon, it’s a choice between sitting in on the second interview with the development director candidate or explaining in some detail to the landlord why we really do need those extra two basement closets that someone mistakenly deleted from the last lease. By late afternoon that cup of coffee is still half full and ice cold on the window ledge, the manager is hungry and exhausted, and there are several additional hours of work between now and a collapse into bed.

This real life game of whack-a-mole is what the manager’s job is all about. Most managers have a timeline imposed on them, and that timeline tends to be driven by the normal business cycles of the nonprofit. A manager in a university will typically have a timeline of a semester. A manager in a health care facility will usually focus on the monthly rhythms of direct employees’ schedules, whereas a museum manager will probably manage from exhibition to exhibition.

By necessity managers must concentrate their efforts a few days or weeks out. They must be equipped to handle complexity because that’s their job. Ask a manager for their views about what their organization should look like in 2015 and they’ll rightfully reply “don’t joke with me – I don’t have the time.”



There are those whose professional lives plant them firmly in the past. Accountants and bookkeepers spend most of their professional time in the past because they must deal with transactions that have already occurred. Lawyers must look to laws that have been passed, cases that were decided, and precedents that were set. There is a powerful tug that comes from yesterday. It’s much clearer than most of today and it’s definitely clearer than tomorrow. It can be enormously satisfying to find a solution from last year and apply it to tomorrow.


Five Years From Today

Unlike managers who must help their organization cope with complexity, nonprofit leaders must help their organization cope with change. For them, the question is not how good are you are at dealing with the past but how effective can you be in shaping our future.

This is the one that is most difficult of the four orientations to time because it is unnatural. There is ample scientific evidence that human beings are hard-wired to deal effectively with the threat of a saber-toothed tiger hiding just behind that tree or the hostile clan from across the valley, but are miserably equipped to deal with the concept of three years from now. Yet, that is precisely what executives and members of a nonprofit board of directors must do.

The complexities of first an industrial economy two centuries ago and now an information-based economy are so vast that we as a species couldn’t keep up, and that puts an extra burden on the relatively small group of executives and board members that lead nonprofit organizations.


What to do

If you are reading this article in its first publication in The NonProfit Times it is because you are an executive whose job is to be comfortable with the future. By definition this means you are being asked to do something for which you are biologically unequipped. The only way to succeed at it, then, is to make a conscious effort. Here are some tips.

  • Half Hour A Day — Especially in small nonprofits, the distinction between what the chief executive does and what the managers do (if there are managers) is murky at best. Set aside a half-hour a day to do nothing but think about the future. That’s not next week or next month, but a minimum of a year ahead, preferably two or more. It might help at first to think in seasonal terms – at this time next year, what do I want to be different in this organization? After a while, the future will look less like a distant fog and more like an interesting place to be.
  • Absorb Facts and Look for Patterns — Immerse yourself in the facts and figures about your organization and its environment. Consume everything you can find about the current characteristics of your mission area including consumers, funders, your competitors/collaborators, your labor force, and the nature of the geographic reach of your organization. Be on the alert for patterns that seem to stretch out into the long-term future.
  • Concepts — Facts by themselves don’t offer much of a glimpse into the future, but concepts based in facts do. For example, most people are familiar with the concept of the Baby Boom generation but until recently few wrestled explicitly with the implications of Boomer Nonprofit CEOs. This concept implies generational leadership changes, an increase in sudden CEO vacancies, a bumper crop of 40-something successors, and possibly new attitudes toward CEO tenure, productivity, and old age.

One’s preferred orientation to time helps predetermine many aspects of professional involvement. Powerful as it is, however, time orientation is so deeply set that most don’t even recognize it as a factor. Knowing and managing one’s own time comfort zone is one of the most formative leadership tools an executive can use. What time are you?  NPT

Thomas A. McLaughlin is the founder of the nonprofit-oriented consulting firm McLaughlin & Associates and a faculty member at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. He is the author of “Streetsmart Financial Basics for Nonprofit Manager”’ (3rd edition), published by Wiley & Sons. His email address is tamclaughlin@comcast.net