It is disturbing when a system works too slowly or provides inaccurate results. Worse, it can be hard to diagnose and fix the root cause. When that system is a person it is even more frustrating. When that person is yourself it can be embarrassing!
I was working with a GBS senior partner and a team of IBMers to put together a quick proposal that would be put in front of the CEO of a leading bank the same day. I was “driving” and the team was telling me what to type or draw. It was clear that my PowerPoint authoring was slower than usual. When I sent out the results to the team it was clear that, in the rush, I had forgotten to proof-read it. Then, when I reflected on my performance and faulty results my inner critic got a bit carried away until I realized what was happening inside my head and squelched it.
Just a bad day? What about the times when I interrupted someone, over-optimized things until they were more complex than they needed to be, or used business-speak or techno-babble when I knew I was the only one in the room to comprehend it? What about the times I completed an urgent task at the expense of something more important? All this when consciously trying to avoid it?
Can anyone provide leadership when they have a comedy of errors going on inside their own head?
I was fed up and determined to do something about it. Where I ended up is with my nose in another book–this time “The Executive and the Elephant“.
The notion of people getting distracted by thoughts and doing something other than what they were trying to do is nothing new. This book provides proven ways to actually stop it, presented in an innovative way for leaders.
The author calls the subconscious mind your elephant and your conscious mind your executive. You can imagine the executive trying to ride the elephant and keep it on track.
It reminded me of my wife getting thrown off her horse when the horse’s craving for a mouthful while galloping through the weeds was stronger than my wife’s ability to keep his head up.
So I kept reading. I am still reading. I recommend the book to anyone who wants to become a better leader by learning to lead their own mind.
I thought that it would be interesting to point out the parts of The Executive and the Elephant that sounded most promising, commit to trying them out, and document my results.
First, I’ve tried to-do lists already and they have been how I overcome procrastination for more than 20 years. The trick is to break down tasks small enough to not be intimidating or vague. They need to be something that you can imagine doing. Hand-written lists work best for me and I was surprised to read that this is true of many others as well. Write it down (by hand) and you stand a good chance of actually doing it.
Visualization is another good idea that I am already familiar with and use frequently. I rehearse any situation that stresses me out in every scenario that I can think of. It is another staple of my daily routine that makes me paranoid and strangely quiet for long periods of time at home–not one of my wife’s favorites.
A new and promising idea that I had not heard before is to imagine that, at the beginning of a conversation, a person has a full glass of tea in their hand. You need to let them empty it before you try to pour in some more. Otherwise, your tea will just end up overflowing onto their lap and shoes. Let them speak and do not interrupt them. I am going to us this imagery to become a more thoughtful listener.
I am also going to tell several colleagues that I am going to give them RM10 every time I interrupt them. I’d better remember to get a wad of RM10 bills!
Another great idea is to focus on someone’s left eye and make sure you know what color it is. Supposedly this is a proven technique used by actors to stay focused when rehearsing lines over and over. I am intrigued and will give it a try. If it makes me a better listener then hey, whatever works!
There are some meditation techniques to sharpen concentration. They should help me work faster under pressure and remember little details like reading what I just wrote before distributing it.
The book is far more interesting and convincing than the above few notes. If you read it then my notes will sound more reasonable. At any rate, I will post again sometime soon with some results.
In my last post I committed to myself that I would try some techniques from The Executive and the Elephant and report back on the results. This is the first status update.
The most effective technique was keeping a wad of RM10 bills in my pocket to remind me not to interrupt anyone. The idea was, should I interrupt anyone, I would fork over RM10.
It really makes me feel like an amateur when I interrupt someone. Like my wife, galloping along on her horse, and getting thrown when the horse dips unexpectedly to grab a mouthful of weeds; my “executive” falls off my “elephant” sometimes.
There is something magical about a physical object in your pocket (such as a wad of RM10 bills) to help you keep the presence of mind to build new habits such as listening attentively.
So the result: It worked like a charm. I did not interrupt anyone, I didn’t have to give anyone any Ringgets, and I feel great about being a better listener.
In fact, the wad of bills also reminded me to use some of the other techniques. I remembered to let people “empty their tea-cup” and I looked them in the eye when they spoke. In retrospect, I looked them in their right eye (my left). In theory it is better to look them in the other eye. I’ll try that next time. But even the right eye was better than looking at my
If you want to improve your listening skills then I recommend that you combine these three techniques. Remembering to do it is the hard part and that is where it helps to have a cumbersome wad of RM10 bills in your pocket.