Tag Archives: Focus

How to Present Executive Presence with James Corden

I’ve been reading a lot about the Buddhist idea of presence and how we can be more aware of the “now.” According to its teachings, regret, fear, and anger come from comparing our current experience with a past, future, or alternative experience. This tension generates negative emotions that distract us from concentrating on what is occurring right in front of us.

In Western society, this concept of presence was popularized by British philosopher Alan Watts and his 1951 book The Wisdom of Insecurity. Like Buddhism, he argues that the root of frustration and daily anxiety is our tendency to live for the future, a “constantly retreating phantom—the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead.” According to Watts, to escape this toxic cycle, we must maintain a full awareness of our present experience, which he differentiates from judging it, evaluating it, or relating it to some arbitrary ideal.

If the ancient teachings of Buddha or an acclaimed English academic don’t convince you, consider what The Late Late Show host James Corden said in a recent interview with Chris Hardwick:

[Being present is] the only way you can juggle being busy. You need to think, ‘What’s the thing I have to do now and I won’t think about anything else other than being the best version of myself now.’ So, if all I’m thinking about now is trying to make this the best [interview] it can be, I can leave here and go, ‘And now I’m going to try to be the best host or boss tonight.’ And when I get home, I’m going to try and be the best husband… And if that’s what you are always trying to do, you will only be a success. It’s the moment when you go, ‘Aww, I’ve got that on Thursday and I don’t want to think about this or that,’ then it’s all a disaster, then it all falls apart. When you think, ‘I’ve just gotta get through this so I can get to that thing that’s more important,’ well that thing may never come, it may never arrive. So actually, if you just go, ‘when I get to that, I’ll think about that. Right now, I’m just going to think about this,’ then, I find, that’s the only way I can juggle everything.

As intelligent people, it may seem obvious why fixating on the past and future is a diversion from the existing moment. However, as leaders, we must do more than just “live in the now;” we must demonstrate that we are present for the moment, for the team, for the vision, and for the tasks at hand. Sound daunting? It’s easier than you may think.

The most successful leaders know that appearing present is about providing your undivided attention. This can be illustrated through something I call the Dean Test. Named after Dean “the King of Cool” Martin, let’s say you walk into a meeting with a bunch of strangers. Who’s in charge? Using the Dean Test you can pick out the most senior leader by looking for the person who is least distracted.

Whereas everyone else is checking their phone, rummaging through folders, and desperately gawking at the clock, the leader is unencumbered by logistical details or outside interference. They are projecting a sense of freedom, authority, and calmness as they converse with those in the room. They focus on whoever is speaking, listen attentively, and inquisitively dig into the issues being presented.

By displaying a composed demeanor, the leader is exhibiting a quiet confidence that says, “Your time is as valuable as mine, so I will pay attention because this is the most important place I need to be right now.” Showing respect is the fasted way to build respect, and everyone appreciates attention from the boss. Plus, you absorb more of the information since you are engaged in what is being said.

The only thing that exists is this. Everything behind is gone and everything forward is unknown. All you’ve actually got is now. Everything else is dust; this is the only thing that is happening. So if you’re just trying to do this now, and when you get home do that, and tomorrow be wherever you need to be, then you’ll be alright.—James Corden

Feeling a sense of presence is not always easy. We all have competing prioritizes that take us away from the here and now. So start with behaving as if you are present. Keep your phone in your pocket and focus on your surroundings. “Pretend” as if whatever you are doing right now actually matters. The more you act purposefully, the more natural it will become, and the closer you’ll get to emulating Buddha, Alan Watts, James Corden, Dean Martin, etc.

How Much Can You (Mentally) Bench? Six Ways to Build Your Mental Toughness with Ron Howard

When discussing the characteristics of successful leaders, one trait is often overlooked. It’s not the need for charisma, confidence, or communication skills, we talking about those incessantly. No, it is the need for mental toughness. Famed filmmaker and actor Ron Howard discussed this undervalued attribute during a recent conversation on the podcast Off Camera with Sam Jones:

I was talking to a friend of mine who’s a Wall Street guy, and he’s always been a bond trader. He said that when he recruits young talent, they have to understand math, but he loves to get men and women who are athletes, highly competitive athletes. And I said, ‘Oh, it’s because you are trying to win, right? It’s kind of a zero sum thing.’ He said, ‘No, they know how to lose. They know how to lose and get back up and go, and go hard. No one reaches that caliber of athletic achievement without losing a helluva lot more than they win. And they learn how to cope with that.’ And I think if we’re doing this type of work and you want to make it your life’s work, you have to have that mental toughness or at least that understanding.

Mental toughness is the ability to respond resiliently to pressures, setbacks, adversities and challenges. It involves remaining emotionally steady and focused while continuing to make rational decisions under pressure. Like Ron Howard’s friend, mental toughness is often associated with athletes. After all, they spend a significant amount time in high-pressure, highly competitive situations, with arenas of onlookers and the objective to achieve a specific goal within a compressed period of time.

This unique atmosphere compels athletes to learn how to conquer fears and evade despondence in their quest for victory. For instance, a recent study examining professional baseball players found that players with greater mental toughness performed better in on-base plus slugging, a key performance metric that reflects a player’s ability to get on base and advance base runners (and is considered among the most predictive metrics of team wins). They also performed better under stress, kept their emotions in check, and were able to bounce back quicker when things did not go well.

Obviously, star athletes must have some innate, natural ability—coordination, physical flexibility, anatomical capacities—just as successful senior executives need to be able to think strategically and relate to people. But the real key to excellence in both sports and business is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in your head. Rather, it is [mindset] mental toughness.—Grant Jones, Sports Psychologist and former consultant to Olympic and world champions in seven games

This is not just applicable to the sports world. In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, psychologist Angela Duckworth’s research shows that this skill set is more reliable than cognitive or technical skills when predicting success. If this sounds like an overstatement, consider the results of her study. Focusing on new cadets at West Point military academy, Duckworth examined the student’ high school rank, SAT scores, Leadership Potential Score, Physical Aptitude Exam, and Grit Scale (which measures perseverance and passion for long–term goals). What she found was that while intelligence, strength, and leadership potential were beneficial, those scoring highest on the Grit Scale were 60% more likely to successfully finish the initiation program than their peers.

These results were replicated in a number of other studies:

In the Journal of Managerial Psychology, researchers concluded, “mental toughness can be a significant indicator of potential for level of achievement and managerial position attained.”

A study in the Journal of Management found that leaders exhibiting mental toughness are more successful in obtaining their followers’ trust, respect, and buy-in. They are also more likely to be perceived as influential, while less resilient leaders who appear ambivalent or emotionally-unfulfilled are less likely to be seen as persuasive.

In a nationwide survey conducted by Price Pritchett where CEOs were asked to name the most important traits of their company, the top answers were staying power, can-do attitude, and resilience, all characteristics associated with mental toughness.

And good news! Research has found that mental toughness can be developed. Professional athletes regularly engage in training their psychological readiness. Jason Selk, author of Executive Toughness and director of mental training for the St. Louis Cardinals, coordinates daily “mental workouts” with players, including such practices as controlled breathing, visualizing a personal “highlight reel,” and imagining successes that are going to happen in the next game. You can also consider:

Practice self-control. To be mentally tough, we need to be able to manage our thinking and emotions. This means not allowing the business environment or the opinion of others to control our decision making. To do so, when experiencing pressure, immediately stop, take a few deep breaths, and assess the situation.

Be inner-driven. Mentally strong people harness their internal motivation so they can decide how/why to push themselves. They do not allow negative outside forces to hijack their thoughts and emotions.

Practice flexibility. Do you know why the Caribbean has so many palm trees? Because they bend in a hurricane. Just like the palm tree, success in our dynamic work environment depends on our readiness to adjust quickly. To remain mentally elastic, approach new situations with a creative mind, be aggressively curious, and be open to alternatives.

Seek challenges. You cannot become mentally tougher if you are not inserting yourself into situations that test your intellect, skill set, or ego.

Don’t be an expert. One trap of ambitious professionals is believing they’ve reached “expert status.” Experts fall into a routine; they see things a certain way and stop considering alternatives. Retain your probing, creative mindset and don’t let experience blind you from new possibilities.

Embrace uncertainty. Mental toughness is not synonymous with being all-knowing. But it does mean that we cannot allow ambiguity to cloud our judgment or spur panic. Think through the options and act on them. Avoid knee-jerk responses and keep your sights on the end-goal.

While we may not be able to compete with professional athlete on muscle strength, we are capable of being contenders in mental strength. Don’t let adversity thwart your confidence. Practice resilience so when the next challenge transpires, you can flex those skills and tough it out.

Too Many Television Choices? How Leaders Can Avoid Faulty Decision Making (and a Jam-Packed DVR)

Tvs bannerI’ve really enjoyed this summer. Unlike the rest of the year, summer is the one time when I don’t feel pressure to keep my television viewing current. My DVR is not on the brink of overflow and I can leisurely catch up on programs I’ve missed without worrying that someone will spoil it. But fall is coming and with it is a whole lotta of new TV.

My issues are of my own doing. I don’t have to watch all of my shows; there is just so much good television. I both can’t keep up and I really, really want to. Therefore, to ease up on this unnecessary, leisure-time pressure, I’ve decided to remove some shows from my viewing rotation. Making this resolution is easy; keeping it is not.

There is simply too much television… [The audience] is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of shows.—John Landgraf, CEO of FX Networks

How do I decide what shows to abandon? I have two that are wrapping up this year, so I can’t miss their conclusion. Three are frequently referenced at work, so I can’t cut myself out of the break room chatter. Others make me think, are reserved for family time, or are simply too good to ignore. And let’s not forget about the promising new shows coming out.

With so many shows to pick from, I don’t want to choose the wrong ones. This quandary is not uncommon. Numerous studies have concluded that we often make a bad decision when presented with too many options.

In a recent experiment, acclaimed neuroscientist Paul Glimcher asked participants to choose one candy bar amongst those offered, including their favorite, a Snickers. If offered a Snickers, an Almond Joy, and a Milky Way, the Snickers was always chosen. However, when participants were offered twenty candy bars, including Snickers, they frequently picked a candy bar other than the Snickers. This may not seem unusual except that when Glimcher removed all the choices except the selected candy and the Snickers, a significant number of participants were unsure why they chose a candy bar other than their favorite.

Malcolm Gladwell’s classic Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking discussed an overcrowded hospital Emergency Room in Chicago that had too many patients, not enough doctors, cramped space, an inadequate number of beds, and scarce resources. Finding that over thirty patients a day came in complaining of having a heart attack, the hospital conducted a study. They found that…

…extra information is more than useless. It’s harmful. It confuses the issues. What screws up doctors when they are trying to predict heart attacks is that they take too much information into account.

And in a 2004 study, Columbia Business School’s Sheena Iyengar concluded that extensive choices in retirement funds hinder purchasing decisions and decrease subsequent satisfaction with the purchased plan. Using data from 800,000 employees, Iyengar and her team found 75% participation when offered two 401k plans, but it dropped to 70% when eleven plans were offered and 61% when there were 59 plans. Then, once the employees with more options chose their plan, many opted out or chose lower-return plans.

Consumers are saying that greater choice does not always lead to a better experience.—Jonathan Hurd, Altman Vilandrie & Company Director

Thankfully, there are ways we can sift through the options to improve our decision making. Consider the following:

What’s the problem? Before getting lost in the infinite number of solutions, spend more time defining the problem. You can then concentrate on a clearer, more distinct objective.

Narrow it down. Since decision making is hampered by feeling overwhelmed from an excessive number of options, begin by removing the undesirable choices. This will minimize distractions and allow you to focus on the best decision.

Rank it. Once you have a list of the best possible solutions, make a pro/con list. Order them by favorability consult with your team, and carefully analyze the data.

Do your due diligence. Time pressures are a sure path to faulty decision making. A sense of urgency is necessary, but allow yourself time to weigh your options before committing.

Don’t let an overwhelming number of options harm your decision making. Remain vigilant of the impact this can have on you and your team. Like my clean DVR cue, maintain a clean approach to how you organize your thoughts. With a little discipline, it can be as easy as pressing delete.

Weekender: Greg Fitzsimmons on Enshrining Your Legacy

Greg Fitzsimmons thumbWelcome to another edition of leadersayswhat’s the Weekender, a puppy of thought to start your weekend off with a positive mindset. Why just a puppy (versus a full size dog)? Because it’s the weekend!

I spoke with an accomplished entrepreneur recently who is contemplating retirement. The only thing holding him back, he stated, is his legacy. He feels the need to garner one more big win to solidify his place on the Mount Rushmore of Success. He went on to explain that this need to establish a lasting legacy weighs on him much more than any of the financial pressures he felt at the infancy of his career.

I use to dismiss this legacy-emphasis as nothing more than insincere actions taken in an attempt to preserve ego. Sure, I want to be remembered in a positive light, but my legacy does not guide my decision making. Then I heard Greg Fitzsimmons discuss this on his podcast, Fitzdog Radio.

You see Louis C. K. now and you see what he’s accomplishing, but he’s always wanted that. I remember him using the word legacy at one point, before things blew up. And I see guys like [Dave] Attell and I think he really cares. You know, alot of these are the guys people are watching. I don’t know that I ever cared about the legacy thing and maybe that’s been my downfall in a way. I always shot for what’s in the moment good, what situation comes up, and I grab it and react… But you know there’s an argument that if I had been focused on one thing, I maybe would have gone farther down a road.

Before hearing this, I never correlated legacy with focus. This is not the need to focus on legacy, mind you, but the legacy that results from remaining focused on a goal, collecting a congruent body of work, and fostering positive relationships with those who choose to follow your vision. With this understanding, many of us have been working towards a legacy without realizing it. Who knows, a little more focus and we may just get there.

Golden State Warriors’ Four Lessons on Finding Your Competitive Advantage

Stephen Curry bannerEvery leader is looking for a competitive advantage. We analyze business models, speak with consultants selling “the next big thing,” and delve into industry best practices all in the hopes of finding the magic bullet no one has ever considered. When someone does find it, we (and every other thought leader) beat ourselves up for missing something so obvious. Such is the story of the Golden State Warriors.

The Golden State Warriors just finished the NBA regular season with the best record of all-time—73-9—surpassing Michael Jordan’s 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls. In addition, Warrior’s superstar Stephen Curry finished the regular season with a record 402 3-pointers and Coach Steve Kerr won NBA Coach of the Year.

For anyone trying to propel their success, it is worth asking how a team with a 35-year losing streak transformed themselves into a NBA powerhouse. While some seasons were better than others, until five years ago, no one identified the Warriors as winners. Then the new owners came up with a less-than-revolutionary idea—what if we concentrate on 3-pointers?

Focusing on this niche plan may seem obvious, and I’m sure others tried it, but no one has utilized this system more effectively than the Warriors. Just as the masterminds who purchased the failing franchise turned it around, we must enhance our ability to spot a niche, which is simply determining the ways we can compete differently. Here are four things we can all do to make the most of our next opportunity and utilize that niche.

Remain Objective. The Warriors’ executives placed a strong emphasis on statistics. They found quantifiable evidence to support their new emphasis on 3-pointers: research showed that NBA players made roughly the same percentage of shots from 23 feet as they did from 24; the only difference was that the 3-point line ran between these distances.

Lesson: We need to collect similar measurable data to find untapped opportunities without being obstructed by unsound, emotional leanings.

Remain Open. When exploring potential advantages, the Warriors did not decide to focus on 3-pointers and then collect supporting evidence. Instead, they performed a deep dive into the endless supply of statistics before finalizing their plan.

Lesson: Brainstorm with an open mind to avoid an unconscious predilection towards reinforcing your own ideas.

Don’t Rely on One Top Performer. To put their plan into place, the Warriors knew they needed to build the team around Stephen Curry so he could take more 3-pointers. However, they also knew that most 3-point-shooting teams had one superstar surrounded by a collection of talented supporting players. This created an opening for Klay Thompson who was an excellent shooter and could take some defensive pressure off Curry.

Lesson: Finding one top performer is great, but to have a real competitive advantage, you need a team of top performers… and they must we willing to work together.

Believe in Your Plan. Before the season began, the Warriors had a chance to trade for one of the league’s premier players, Minnesota Timberwolves’ Kevin Love. While many would have jumped at the chance, the Timberwolves wanted to trade for Klay Thompson. Because this was a deal breaker, the Warriors passed.

They kept asking for Klay, and we kept saying no. We weren’t going to trade Klay, and they weren’t going to do a deal without Klay.—Joe Lacob, the Warriors’ primary owner

Lesson: Once you have a master plan in place, you must retain a dogmatic determination to see your plan to fruition.

We are all on the hunt for innovative solutions that will propel our business. Some solutions are cutting edge, but most are an attempt to get back to the basics. Dig through your data points to find missed opportunities. Involve key members of your brain trust on the treasure hunt. Maintain an open dialogue to continue on the path towards constant improvement. And remain vigilant for your Golden State-like golden opportunity.