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Focus: The Super-Power

Recently, a dear friend of mine was asked to give a guest lecture at a prestigious MBA program. To say that this woman is a rock-star might be underselling it - I've known her for 27 years, during which she has served in top leadership roles for a strategic consulting company, a start-up, and a Fortune 500 corporation. She is one of the most talented leaders I have ever met (and folks, I've met Oprah!!!). So I was touched when she said yes to the invitation (as it would bring her to my hometown) and was even more excited when the MBA professor agreed I could attend (so long as I behaved and kept my cool).


When the class began, I noticed something disconcerting. In the back two rows, nearly every student had their laptop open. Unfortunately for both them and me, I happened to be sitting in the very last row, so I could see exactly what they were doing. The majority of the students were multi-tasking - one was checking out airfares, one was shopping for shoes, one was feverishly working on another presentation, one was researching stocks, the list goes on...


While I found this disheartening for the professor (who is a marketing genius in his own right), I figured that once he introduced my friend - and she took the stage - they would definitely snap to attention. She took the floor, and not only was she magnetic, but her topic was fun, interesting, and loaded with videos, visuals, and thought-provoking questions. She'd done an amazing job creating content that would have enraptured any audience (and especially a group of leaders wanting to go into business!). And the students in the front of the room were clearly soaking it up - connecting with her ideas, and asking questions of their own.


But sadly, I think many students in those back two rows never really heard what she had to share - not only did the multi-tasking continue, but they made no attempt to even conceal what they were doing. No pauses to make eye contact with the speaker, no thoughtful nods, nothing. Instead, they continued to plow through these other tasks that were ostensibly more important than listening to a leader that any of them would be fortunate to work with.


If you sense frustration in my words, it's real. For a moment, I seriously thought about getting out of my chair, walking down the aisle of students, and closing their laptops one by one (like a crazed "whac-a-mole" game). But since I'd made the promise to "be cool," I decided I wouldn't let their actions impact my enjoyment of this experience. I leaned in, soaked up her words, and was riveted by the incredible leadership lessons she was sharing. And, as usual in her presence, I learned new concepts and new perspectives that I could bring to some of the leadership challenges that I and my clients face.


When the class was over, there was a long line of students queued up to speak with her. "That's funny," I thought, as I watched many of the multitaskers also jostle for her attention. And that's when it hit me - these students may not think that they were being disrespectful, and they may think there was absolutely nothing wrong with their behavior. They had no idea the impression they were making. But I did.


Later that night, we dissected the event with our family. A very wise coach once taught me to pay attention to those things that boil my blood - because, very likely, a core value of mine is being violated or disrespected in that moment. Well, it just so happens that I have my core values hung in my office - here's a picture.

And, as I reflected on that experience, I could see how nearly every one of those values was being trampled on.

Curiosity, reflection and growth. The best way to demonstrate curiosity, reflection and a desire for growth? For me, it's been active listening and asking thought-provoking questions. And I know that neither of those are possible when I'm distracted, or when I let my mind wander to other tasks.

Authentic, warm connections. In a now-famous study, Mehrabian demonstrated that how we communicate emotion and attitude follows this formula: 7% Verbal + 38% Vocal + 55% Facial. That means that 93% of our emotion and attitude is conveyed from our vocal tone and facial expression. In a presentation setting, this facial expression is the ONLY way listeners have to show the speaker they are following along. I am sure we've all had that experience when someone is not making eye contact with us, and it's clear they are doing something else. (Zoom group calls are the worst for this!). How does that feel? It certainly does not promote authentic, warm connections.

Gratitude and appreciation. When the professor introduced my friend, he described her extensive background. She literally is responsible for 40,000+ employees and navigated her organization through COVID in one of the most challenging industries impacted by the pandemic. The students were so lucky to have her in their presence! When I want to show gratitude and appreciation (especially if I'm an audience member), the only way I can do so is by giving the speaker my full and undivided attention. Period.

Intentional impact and service. The irony of this whole scene was that when my friend described why her company loses customers, the #1 reason is that the customer feels a "perceived attitude of indifference." When we don't make eye contact or pay attention, we model indifference. And in doing so, we lessen our impact. I often hear from my clients just how frustrating it is when their bosses - or peers - aren't paying attention. The damage that is done in these interactions is simply not worth whatever item gets checked off on a to-do list.


My personal values aside, my real worry is that this lack of focus not only harms the recipient, but it harms the person who is multi-tasking even more. Here's why:


Multi-tasking is not effective

Study after study has shown that multi-tasking is not effective, and worse yet, it can create harm to our brains, our relationships, and our stress levels. Here are a few of the most notable impacts:

  • Loss of focus

  • Loss of memory

  • Decrease in productivity

  • Inconsistent results

  • Heightened stress levels

We can't be great managers if we can't focus on the person in front of us

If we believe that we are training MBA students to be future leaders, the ability to connect with their peers, employees, customers and stakeholders is critical. The relationship employees have with their direct supervisors has a huge impact on their job satisfaction. And if we want to build trust, simple things like giving the speaker our full attention, actively listening, and asking thoughtful questions are non-negotiable.


Work (and life) is actually way more fulfilling when we focus

The concept of flow, which has been studied extensively by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, promises to bring greater wellbeing, creativity, and productivity to our work and world. Flow is like a nirvana state - when we're so engrossed in a challenging but doable task that we literally lose a sense of time. As Csikszentmihalyi studied the elements required to achieve flow, the first one is: Complete concentration on the task. It's hard to even aspire to that stage if we don't build up our focus muscles in other settings and interactions.


In a world where the distractions are coming at us faster than ever, focus may be our new super-power. Right now, I've noticed that many conversations center around, "What jobs will our economy still need, now that AI has arrived?" I have no crystal ball, but I do have a strong sense that those jobs that require human connection, creativity, and collaborative problem solving will have more staying power. And it's pretty hard to multi-task your way through any of those.

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