CEO Coaching: Selective Attention Leads to Hard Landings

A friend recently sent me a video in which someone in the back seat of an airplane filmed the pilot and co-pilot chatting during an approach to landing. The gear-warning horn was blaring so loudly that they had to shout over it to hear each other. The video ends with the sound of metal on concrete.

How could these guys possibly have ignored the warning horn?

Another friend shared with me the video of a 1999 selective-attention experiment in which you’re told to concentrate on basketballs being passed from one person to another. Half the people watching the video miss a person dressed in a gorilla suit walking through the game. (I’ll bet you can still find it on the web.)

Take the selective-attention paradigm to your current work environment. Here are a few “gorillas” that I’ve seen:

Bob is off-the-wall and consistently has a lot of creative, but often ill-advised, ideas. You’re in a meeting trying to solve a problem, and he comes up with something that is absolutely wacky! Or is it?

You have a lock on the worldwide market for a product, have the best engineers and win all the industry accolades. Suddenly, someone comes out of virtually nowhere and eats your lunch. It happened to Xerox in the 1980s, and the British motorcycle market share dropped from 49 percent to 9 percent in a little more than a decade in the United States.

You’re the CEO of a successful technology company. You’re so focused on execution that you ignore technology changes that rip apart your business while you shave a couple of points from your payroll. The warning horn is blaring, but you disregard the “noise” because you’re laser-focused on your objectives.

You hire some brilliant key executives to get your company to the next level and ready to sell. They bring stellar résumés and technical skills with records of success. Unfortunately, they destroy your company’s culture before you know it.

How do you have a fighting chance of seeing the gorilla in the room?

1. Hire people with different points of view, and listen to them. Under the guise of solidarity, people hire in their own image. When you sit at the top of the pile, people will tell you what you want to hear. Think about Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Do you think he gets good counsel?
2. Get a board and a coach who’ll call bull hockey on you. The longer you’re in a senior role, the greater the chance you’re breathing your own exhaust.
3. Make sure your past success is still relevant. Often, the first step toward failure is previous success. Jim Collins identifies this in “How the Mighty Fall.” When you know that you have it right, you’re extremely vulnerable. What got you here may not get you there, and in fact, it might get you to failure faster!
4. Don’t stick your butt out! An old friend of mine used to say, “When you’re always looking inward, it means that your butt is facing the outside world.” I see too many executives not get outside of their own four walls. Industry groups are OK, but better yet, expose yourself to lots of ideas from other industries.
5. Put processes in place that force you to consider other options. This might be a series of questions. What else should I consider? How would _____ view this? If I had to argue the other side of this issue, what points would I make? How would my 7-year-old view this issue? You get the picture.

Focus is a great thing. When taken to the extreme of selective attention, however, it can lead to hard and noisy landings.


Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy®. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Todd is the author of, Never Kick a Cow Chip On A Hot Day: Real Lessons for Real CEOs and Those Who Want To Be(Morgan James Publishing, 2016). Connect with Todd on LinkedIn, Twitter, call 303-527-0417 or email todd@toddordal.com.

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