The importance of being present

being-present

Whatever you’re doing, right now, learn to focus completely on doing that one thing. Pay attention: to every aspect of what you’re doing, to your body, to the sensations, to your thoughts. (Source: Zen Habits)

Being completely, totally present is an incredibly important – and often difficult – task. My spouse and kids (and yours too, I’m guessing) will tell you it’s nearly impossible to keep my attention when work’s busy and my phone’s buzzing, and that it’s only slightly less challenging when work’s not busy and my phone’s not buzzing, because who knows what fascinating information might be delivered to me or my Facebook stream at any moment. I’d tell you the same thing about them, of course, and they’d agree.

Being present may be more challenging than ever, but distractions were not invented by Apple. I don’t know what my parents did when I was on the playground as a little boy, but I know it wasn’t giving me their undivided attention. Maybe it was reading magazines, or etching words into stone tablets.

What in the world did people used to do when they were waiting in line – just wait?

At work, being present for our co-workers requires a similar focus. I’ve gotten good at asking co-workers to “wait just a second while I finish this email so I can give you my full attention,” and it’s helped a lot. But as a leader, being present means something a little bit different, a little bit more, which I want to explore.

What does it mean for a leader to be present?

Did you ever notice how easy it is to say negative things about someone who’s not around? “My boss is completely disconnected from the business,” you might say, or “she wouldn’t make those decisions if she wasn’t so clueless.” When the object of our scorn is in another office – or on vacation, or in a board meeting – it’s easy to assume the worst. Things are different – and more complicated – when our target is around, because it’s much harder to dislike a real person than it is to dislike a caricature of one.

When leaders are hidden away in their offices, teams start talking. They assume their leaders are focused on spreadsheets or board decks or expensive trips or golf. They assume their leaders are uninterested in the day-to-day workings of their business, or in the people on their teams. They assume their leaders are clueless.

When times are good, this can be just a minor annoyance: the people in the trenches tend to feel supported, empowered, and comfortable in the knowledge that they’re working towards a larger goal. They’re less concerned about their work being recognized because they know they’re part of a winning, growing team, and trust isn’t that big a deal. They’re also likely to get better raises and bonuses, which tend make people feel better, even if just for a little while.

When times are bad and leaders are not present, it’s a recipe for disaster. Without context, workers tend to assume the worst about their company and its leaders. They assume management is clueless, focused on all the wrong things and making bad decisions. They assume their own excellent work is not being noticed, and the message that “we need to do more with less” falls on frustrated ears. They may even assume their jobs are at risk.

Did you ever notice how easy it is to say negative things about someone who’s not around?

Bad news doesn’t have to be bad

I give my team bad news all the time. Here’s why:

Context helps teams make better decisions
When business is bad, I may need my team to think differently, reprioritize work, be more creative, or collaborate with others throughout the company. Without the overall business context, they might not know how or why.

Sharing bad news builds trust 
Every company has its ups and down – pretending yours doesn’t won’t fool anybody. When we trust employees enough to give them bad news, they trust that we’re telling the truth when things are good. They may ask hard questions, and we should want them to. Hard questions give us an opportunity to address real concerns.

People rise to the occasion
Every company I’ve been at, from those with 100K+ employees to those with only 4, has had a “rise above” moment. Adversity can bring out the best in people and teams, but only if they understand the context, the goal, and what needs to be done. Most people want to help, and will work much harder when they’ve been challenged appropriately.

Get out of your office!

Being present means being seen, and that means leaders need to get out of their offices, especially when work is hard. When we’re physically present, our teams know we’re mentally present too. Even if our jobs require us to travel often, we can – and must – make our presence felt.

This is hard to do! When things are bad, we don’t want to go on a “world tour” to tell people about it. We don’t want to tell our teams that we might have layoffs, or that we might not get our bonuses. We want to retreat to our offices and avoid hard conversations that will make people unhappy. What if they’re demotivated? What if our best people get freaked out and quit?

But the alternative is much worse. If we don’t tell our teams what’s really happening in our business, they’ll assume the worst, and they’ll make things up. When we miss plan, they’ll think it means that the company is going out of business. When we go on business trips, they’ll think we’re flying on private jets and drinking champagne. When a board meeting lasts an extra hour, they’ll assume layoffs are coming.

Worst of all, our teams won’t keep these thoughts to themselves. They’ll share their negative thoughts with others on the team, and with their friends at other companies. They’ll share their negative thoughts with recruiters, and at networking events, and with their buddies and their families. They’ll post their feelings on Facebook, and Twitter, and Glass DoorComplaining can be cathartic, but a workforce of people out airing their dirty laundry in public can be disastrous.

Notice when people do good work

Finally, being present isn’t just about being there physically, it’s about truly understanding what’s going on. Sometimes that means ignoring the big picture and focusing on great work that’s happening within the teams. I used to have a boss who got so distracted when overall business was bad that he couldn’t even see they great work my team was delivering. This was extremely demotivating. Hey! Over here! We just climbed Mount Everest! We increased conversion by 20 basis points! (Mom, get off of your iPhone! I lost a tooth!)

It’s a marathon, not a race

When we’re present for our teams, we acknowledge their problems, clear roadblocks, and celebrate their successes. We’re honest about business challenges that lay ahead, even if we’re selective when sharing specifics. We trust our teams to understand and to rally around our goals. We pay close attention to the specific work our teams are doing. When the work is great, we tell them, and we connect their success to the success of the company. We make sure they know it matters.

Business is a marathon, not a race. Most employees can’t (and don’t want to) change jobs each time things get hard. They’ve already bought houses and organized their schedules, so they’re placing a bet on the company – and it’s leaders – for the long haul. The best thing you can do to honor that commitment is to show your face. That way your team knows that you’ve placed the same bet.

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