Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Pay Attention to Everything

I once worked on a project that was doomed from the start. In hindsight it was obvious. There was bickering within the company about whether this was the right project to do. There wasn’t real clarity about what the project’s goals were. Even the project staff was divided between the technical staff, who were aloof and cliquish having worked together on a previous project, and the rest of the staff.

As problems arose one of the project managers consoled the rest of the managers with a question, her mantra, “Well, what can we learn from this?” She taught me that there is value in every failure if we can learn from it.

Unfortunately, to take most advantage of learning opportunities, we have to actively pay attention to them. I find it is easy to fall into complacency, not noticing all the really good information that is available for the taking by anyone who bothers to open their eyes and notice it.

Woody Allen said, “Ninety percent of life is showing up.” Stephen Covey’s first habit, “be proactive,” gives a similar sentiment. So many of us go through life on autopilot, not really thinking about the world around us. We never stop to consider the most effective ways to work within it.

Life on autopilot is easier, but it is frightening sometimes when you notice yourself doing it. Take the simple example of reading. I find myself drifting off sometimes, only to notice that I’ve read two or three pages and don’t have the slightest idea what I just read. A more disturbing example is when I drive to a familiar place like work. I’m driving along, taking turns as they come, listening to the radio and thinking about the day to come. All of the sudden I’m nearly at work, and I can’t remember driving the last few miles. I find it frightening to realize that I’ve been doing the most dangerous task I usually do, without the slightest conscience thought whatsoever.

How much of our lives do we spend not paying any attention? If you want to be an effective leader, the answer is “too much.” Effective leaders apply two skills here. One, they are engaged in the world; paying attention; looking for what they can learn. Two, they put these details to use to better manipulate the world around them for their team’s success.

Here are a couple of examples of things to pay more attention to:

  • Learn the power structures in your organization. Figure out who are the thought leaders driving the decision makers. Figure out who the decision makers are, and who they ask question from before making a decision. An effective leader makes sure they sell the thought leaders on ideas, in addition to the decision makers.
  • Pay attention to body language. People convey their thoughts through body language. Watch for signs of support, like rapt attention and smiles. Look for signs of discomfort showing lack of confidence or unspoken bad news, like diverted eyes or sitting awkwardly in a chair. Crossed arms sometimes show disagreement as well as a body turned away from the speaker. When people agree, they tend to take similar postures. Use body language to send subconscious messages to people. They may not get the message directly, but assuming the same position as someone you want to support can make them feel much more confident in their ideas.
  • Learn the special languages of the groups you work with. When talking with your accountants, realize that they mean precise things by “profits,” “margins” and other special words. If you don’t understand them, ask and learn. Senior managers often have a special language based on strategic initiatives and management books. Common phrases can be loaded with particular meanings, that you as a leader can better react to if you understand fully.

This is only a small set of suggestions of things to pay attention to. You should pay attention to everything. Figure out what you can learn from what you see. Engage your brain, and see what it can do for you. I call this being “on,” and it’s exhausting.

You may know the feeling from being in a meeting with an important customer. Perhaps you know the feeling from being a parent of small children. I first got the feeling as a lifeguard at a summer camp pool. It’s the feeling that you need all your attention focused on making sure that every little head that goes under the water comes back up again. After a few hours of that, I was exhausted. It’s the same feeling I get after every meeting with customers. It’s the same feeling I get after every meeting and presentation I host or attend.

Pay that much attention; that you find your self exhausted at the end of every day. That will be the advantage you have over your peers. Look around you the next time you are at a meeting. How many people have simply tuned out?

Now turn your attention to successful leaders around you. Watch them in your next meeting. Are they tuned out? I can confidently say that they are not. They are watching everything around them, including you.

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