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14 Apr. 2014 | Comments (0)

Several months ago, a senior leader brought me in to facilitate a two-day program with her leadership team. In advance of this meeting, “Melinda” told me that she was excited for the event. She had been seeking an opportunity to express how she really feels about the team and how important they are to her. 

When the big day came, Melinda kicked it off on just the right note, with an emotional, heartfelt story that clearly resonated with everyone present. So far, so good.

Then we did a team-building exercise — a simple activity that gave everyone a chance to share some of their favorite things to do as well as their aspirations, personally and professionally. Coming on the heels of that terrific story, the energy level as we started going around the room was high.

But as people opened up their hearts to share some of their hopes and dreams, Melinda opened up her laptop and started answering emails. She buried her head in the computer, resurfacing occasionally with a comment: “Oh, that’s interesting — I never knew you wanted to climb Kilimanjaro!”  Then she would check out for a while again, poring over the screen.

At the next break, I pulled Melinda aside. “With all due respect, Melinda, I have a recommendation,” I said. “When you’re trying to demonstrate that you’re present and you care, you should behave that way.”

“I know!” she said, sighing. “I’m a multitasker…  and right now I’m getting all of these urgent emails because we’re in the 11th hour of launching a new service next week…”

We agreed that Melinda would put away her laptop, and the session turned out well. However, it reminded me that the issue of the distracted leader has become pervasive in today’s workplaces. 

Recently, we created the first-ever scientific assessment of Executive Presence, the Bates Executive Presence Index or Bates ExPI™. It’s a multi-rater assessment with 90 items on it, so we can see how a leader rates himself against his or her supervisor, peers, and direct reports.

One of the 15 facets of executive presence is Resonance, and we have one assessment item for Resonance items that has proven to be especially interesting. We ask people to rate whether the leader is “fully present and attentive when engaging with others.” When 100 leaders went through our pilot, this item turned up pretty often as one of the lowest-rated items for many leaders — especially with their direct reports.

Likewise, the open-ended questions produced many comments providing color behind those low scores. Many raters were dismayed to report that the leader in question was on a smartphone during one-on-one meetings… or answering phone calls… or glancing through email during small-group meetings… or worse, simply never available. All too many leaders have their head on a swivel between their screens and their teams. 

In his newest book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence (Harper, 2013), Daniel Goleman posits that the most successful people excel at balancing three types of focus: inner, other, and outer.  The “other” focus involves knowing how to be present and how to develop empathetic, meaningful connections with people.  It’s a skill that can be developed, and—when it is—it’s  connected to greater happiness, better relationships, and, ironically, INCREASED productivity.

So, what’s the consequence of not being fully present? The people around you get the sense that they don’t really matter all that much… that they are not really worthy of your full attention.  Meanwhile, you’re probably missing at least some of what people are saying, feeling, and doing right around you. This definitely detracts from a leader’s executive presence and power to influence.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is easy for leaders. We’re all pressed by business imperatives, attending back-to-back meetings, and attempting to sift through hundreds of emails each day.  In fact, my New Year’s Resolution is to be more fully present in every conversation that I have… and it’s been a challenge.

When it comes to distractions, I’ve found that I tend to migrate to my comfort zone. I get more comfortable when I’m ticking off tasks, getting little things done.  I also find that it’s all too easy for my mind to slip into that multitasking mode — just like Melinda. I enjoy thinking about one thing while doing another.

Eventually, I realized that these habits were detracting from my ability to maintain focus on the highest-priority areas. So I’ve tried to eliminate that. As a result, the little things do pile up… but I keep reminding myself that these  things are not as important as being in the moment when working on a key strategic priority — or when I’m checking in with people on our team to take the pulse of the organization.

When you’re talking with members of your team, you don’t always know where the conversations may go. However, when you’re fully present and attentive — whether with your team, your spouse, or your kids, it’s time well spent — and it’s energizing. 

If you’re finding that you’re no longer driven to distraction, you’ll be able to really drive results.


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  • About the Author: David Casullo

    David  Casullo

    David Casullo is president at Bates Communications, a national consulting firm specializing in leadership communication skills and strategy. His passion is developing leaders who have the courage and …

    Full Bio | More from David Casullo


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