‘Winning Now, Winning Later’ author David Cote on his secret to corporate creativity

In his new book on corporate leadership, Winning Now, Winning Later, which debuts Tuesday, former Honeywell CEO David Cote has written what Fortune previously dubbed The War and Peace of business books. The tome, which is packed with management lessons and riveting stories from the trenches of corporate America and hits shelves June 30, is likely to inspire a new generation of leaders in training.

The book primarily deals with the tension every leader faces: satisfying Wall Street today, while still placing the big bets that will ensure growth down the line.

But on a personal level, Cote also delves deep about leadership, including his own processes for finding time to think big thoughts amid the daily grind. He lays out three elements of leading a large organization effectively: mobilizing groups of people, picking the right direction, and getting people moving in that direction. “Most people overemphasize the first one,” he writes. Surprisingly, Cote says that rallying the troops is only 5% of the job. “It’s not about giving lofty speeches,” he writes. Ninety-five percent of success is setting the right strategy and following up to ensure it’s carried out. “It’s even more basic than that,” he told me. “If you get the strategy and direction right, you can spent 95% of the time on improving execution, which in turn lowers costs and frees up more cash both for quarterly profits and new investment.”

And Cote highlights his own unorthodox routine for making sure he had enough space to think and set that direction. Throughout his career, Cote set aside two or three full days a month with nothing on his schedule so that he could hatch daring plans to take Honeywell in new directions, and for other modes of improvisation. He called them “X days.” “I lost some of the X days because of emergencies, but I did use about 20 a year,” he says. “I’d use some of them to make surprise visits to plants totally unannounced.” After a worker died in an accident at a plant in Louisiana, Cote hopped a flight on an X day without telling anyone on his staff, then rented a car and drove to the factory. “I just didn’t trust that they’d resolved the safety issues. I didn’t give any advanced notice so I could see the plant and the people exactly as they were, and didn’t have to listen to rehearsed stories or see freshly painted walls,” says Cote.

The remainder of the X days he used for unstructured thinking. “Often I’d just stay in my office,” he recalls. “I had a big, gorgeous fish tank, but after the first few days I didn’t notice how beautiful it was. I had 12,000 songs that I’d put on random streaming, listening to everything from jazz to country to hip-hop to alternative rock to opera. Some people find that distracting. I find hip-hop inspiring.”

Cote dubbed the days reserved for reflection as “blue book days” because he would jot down his ideas in a blue notebook. “I just let my mind wander, but not aimlessly,” he said in an interview. “I’d try to come up with big ideas. It was on a blue book day that I hatched the idea to study the Toyota Production System and develop what became the Honeywell Operating System.”

We’d recommend any leaders in training spend their next X day reading Cote’s book.

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