Attention (where we focus)

January 07, 2011 6 min read

The Eight Great Goods is all about where we (and our organizations) put attention. This article will make you a better, more focused leader.

A good organization is a focused organization — one composed of people who know what they want to achieve and how to get there. A good leader is someone who can help the organization get that focus.

Mission statements and Values statements are two tools that leaders have long — and successfully — used to direct the attention of employees. As a young consultant, I sat in on a number of Mission/Values Statement meetings of top executives. To me, these meetings felt like hours — sometimes days — of group editing. Often lengthy debates occurred over where to place a comma or whether the word should be, for instance, “honesty” or “integrity.” So it was a surprise to me when I found out that Mission/Values Statements are considered two of the most valuable tools in executives’ managerial quivers. The consulting firm Bain and Company has been conducting a study of the most successful management tools on an annual basis since the early 1990s. In each of those years, Mission/Value Statements have been ranked consistently as the top two or within the top three tools. Top leaders report that they find these managerial tools are really useful at focusing attention. Once it was put in those terms, I started to understand the popularity as well. All those hours that Boards and top executives spend in what looks like semantics arguments may be more than that. They may actually be working through some misunderstandings that exist and trying to get clarity for everyone in the room— so that everyone can focus on the same thing.

My one qualm remaining with organizational value statements, in particular, is that they list a lot of “values” that the organization should have, but not in a way that is actionable. Many corporate values statements end up being a mere laundry list of laudable characteristics; you can be sure that in any values statement you come across these days there will be something in there about protecting the dignity of employees and being environmentally green. Those are, indeed, important and good values; I wholeheartedly support them. But what if “green” and “dignity” come into conflict with the company’s goal of making a profit? Do you still value them? What if they come into conflict with each other? Which one is more important? 

I’ve raised these questions before in meetings and been shushed with a curt “Our people must be capable of doing all of these things.” I don’t mind any company setting stretch goals for their employees, but no one’s brain can pay attention to more than one thing at a time. You may be able to switch your focus pretty rapidly from one thing to another, but in any given instance, it is on just one thing. And, the brain pretty quickly prioritizes conflicting tasks and will devote resources to the one that is more important. So, unless you are cultivating a new species as your workforce — I’ve been in companies where it really did feel like they thought they could do that — you probably need to help employees prioritize. As a leader, your job is to focus employee attention in a way that drives them to achieve the goals of the organization.

A leader’s attention

But this prioritization of your employee’s attention all starts with getting your own mind focused on what is most important. As a leader, your attention actually ends up being the focus of attention for your employees. If you don’t have your mind trained on the right things, you really can’t expect your subordinates to stay focused.

In a study I conducted almost ten years ago, I found that subordinates will pay inordinate amounts of attention to where the attention of their leaders are focused. They are more likely to put their attention on those same things themselves. We are hierarchical beings, so we like to please those above us. We’ve learned over millennia that paying attention to what more powerful people care about will make them less likely to want to kill us — and may even earn us a reward if they think we are more like them.

How does this all work? We know that successful CEOs really do care about what they urge their employees to do: Steve Jobs cares deeply about design and usability; Jack Welsh really did want to be number one in everything. These are traits of leadership attention that allowed attention to be pointed to the right issues throughout the organization. But, sometimes even a laudable leadership focus can take an organization down an untenable path. 

Harvey Fellman was long-term CEO of a successful consulting firm. He personally held Society as his Greatest Good — naturally and smoothly focusing on the ties the bind one person to another — and he was brilliant at it. A major part of his leadership style was in helping employees when the vicissitudes of life cropped up. By being there for employees at their time of need — problems with children, elderly parents, divorce, even deaths of loved ones — he created miraculous performance among his employees and consistent loyalty throughout his tenure as CEO and beyond. The company felt like a “family company” even though it was a corporation with multiple shareholders.

Everyone in the company took their cue from Harvey and worked hard at forming tight, collegial — even friendly — relationships with others. In-company dating was not frowned upon — in fact, it was celebrated. Married couples worked together on the same teams — separated only if a workplace difficulty cropped up. 

It was a joy for everyone to work in a company where there was not a clear up or out policy and profitability was explicitly subordinated to human relationships. When the company was in its infancy — as was the consulting industry — a good company that could attract and keep good people was the key to economic growth. But over time the industry’s growth slowed and Fellman’s company never was able to shift out of the Society focus to something more economically viable. Given his company’s focus on keeping employees happy with each other, the increasingly challenging economic environment was not obvious to most of the employees of this company until it was almost too late. What had been created was the corporate equivalent of French royal court behavior. Everyone wanted to get the relationships right and had stopped thinking much about anything else.

Before he knew it, Fellman was being edged out of the company. And the group taking over would not be his handpicked successors. But they were the group that was most able to shift the emphasis to Growth and interestingly, have been able to keep some of the focus on Society at the same time — probably because the culture, a topic addressed below, was so imbued with this thinking. After five years of really painful changes and restructuring, the company is back on a profitable course again.

Another leader of a small, but influential organization — lets call him Ivan — found himself constantly at odds with his most important employees. He is a handsome, and very charismatic CEO — young for his position and highly focused on connecting with the most important people in the world. He has made a bit of a name for himself by focusing on issues of Fairness: “how people should treat each other.” This topic aligns nicely with his personal prioritization of the Eight Great Goods: he cares about it deeply. But it never has been a major focus of the organization where he works. The most talented people in his organization and his customers were interested in Growth. Needless to say, fairness and growth often find themselves at odds with each other. He talks to his Board members, employees, and customers about Fairness all the time. But they have trouble relating to his cause célèbre. Nonetheless, during his tenure as CEO, attention throughout the organization has been diverted to Fairnessand, sadly, the bottom line has suffered.

Attention Exercises

I’ve said that leaders will get attention no matter what; and the issues that leaders pay attention to will also get a lot of attention. But if, as a leader, you have a set of pet issues that need the attention of the whole organization, you probably want to highlight those. 

1)   Take one — or a set — of the Eight Goods and let everyone know that is your emphasis. Make it explicit.

2)   Periodically survey your people to see if they are paying attention to the same Goods that you think are important.

3)   If there is a disconnect, ask why.

4)   If they are the same, ask yourself if you may be overly focused on that one good and need to introduce others into the priority mix.