Why Being on Time is a Big Deal

How long is 5 minutes?

It depends.  If you’re the one rushing to make a meeting, 5 minutes flies by.  If you’re the one who showed up on time, and you’re waiting for someone else to arrive, 5 minutes is a really long time.

Every organization has timeliness standards.  I can usually tell pretty quickly if a company is an on time culture, or a sliding time culture.  In on time cultures 8AM means 8AM.  In a sliding time culture, 8AM means 8ish.

The difference impacts every aspect of the organization.

Imagine an 8AM person leads a meeting that’s supposed to start at 8 AM.  Five people show up on time, or early.  At 8 AM, they’re ready to go.  Then, they wait.  Two people come in at 8:03; do we have everyone yet?  No, we’re still missing three people.  We wait some more.  While waiting, people get on their phones, check email, or step out to make a call.  Between 8:05 and 8:10, the other three people show up, it takes five minutes for everyone to get back engaged; now we’re at 8:15.

Sound familiar?  10 people have wasted 15 minutes.  That’s 150 minutes that could have been spent making decisions or thinking strategically.  Multiply that by a few meetings a week, and you’ve spent hours simply waiting for people to show up.

The wasted hours are not the worst of it.  The deeper issue is the impact on the people waiting.  They very quickly get the message: being on time is not important.  It’s OK to keep people waiting.  It’s more common in creative fields, where ideation sessions expand and contract.  But in my experience, organizations that are routinely late with meetings are late in other areas too.  Fire drills become the norm.

If you’re someone who is late often, it may feel like being 5 minutes late to a WebEx meeting isn’t a big deal, but to the person who raced to their desk to be on time, it feels like a lot longer.

Sit and stare at your computer for five full minutes, or listen to conference call music on hold.

If someone is waiting for you, they’re not sitting there pondering over your best qualities while they count the minutes.

This is a particular challenge for senior leaders.  When you’re the boss, the meeting starts when you arrive.  Subordinates will be quick to tell you it’s no big deal.  But you weren’t there when 15 people were waiting for you.  A leader, who is routinely late, sends the team a message: It’s OK to keep subordinates waiting.  You also send the indirect message: Deadlines aren’t real.

I confess; I struggle with time.  It feels more open-ended and malleable to me than it actually is.  I used to be late a lot because I tried to cram too many things in.  Got 5 minutes before the meeting?  There’s time to make a phone call.  The call lasts 6 minutes; you’re dashing in.  I forced myself to change a decade ago when I realized, an effective leader is consistently on time and prepared.

People who are late a lot justify it because they’re so busy.  That’s what I used to do.  But are you really busier than anyone else?

Everyone is late sometimes.  But if you’re the one who’s always rushing in at the last minute, you’re costing yourself and your company, a lot.