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The Distracted Executive


April 2012

Coaching distracted executives gives Tom an image that he brings back to his clients. He identifies three behaviors to use when trying to get the attention of a distracted exec.

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April 2012

The Distracted Executive

Tom Henschel

“How do I get his attention?”

Natalie was at the end of her rope. “How do I get his attention?” she asked, referring to her boss, Marc. “I barely start talking and I can see he’s not listening. He’s checking his email or his phone. Whatever he’s doing, he sure isn’t listening. And I know this isn’t about me. He’s like this with everyone.”

I smiled to myself. Just the day before, I’d met Andre for our third coaching session. During our initial meeting, I’d brought him his 16-page Myers-Briggs Type Indicator report. He’d flipped through the first couple pages, then tossed it on the table and changed the subject. He’d begun our second session by announcing that he’d cut our two-hour meeting down to one hour. Then he’d proceeded to tell me about a problem his son was facing at college. I listened while trying to figure out if there was some relevance to the story.

I arrived at our third session knowing I wanted to convey one particular idea to him. I felt doubtful he’d be able to hear it but I was determined to get it out there.

High-speed package delivery

I saw in Andre what I see in many executives: an inability to slow down and open himself to thoughtful engagement. That’s what Natalie was experiencing with her boss, Marc.

When I try to communicate with these distracted executives, I feel as though I am standing on a train platform, holding an important package that I need to hand deliver to the executive who’s a passenger on the train. I see the train approaching and feel a sense of relief. “Ah, good,” I think, “this will be easy. I’m good at this.”

Then I see the train isn’t slowing down. But I still have to deliver my important package. I quickly calculate that I’m going to barely have a split second to spot my executive on the roaring train, then pitch my package through a tiny window that’ll be flying by at 70 miles per hour. If my aim is perfect, not only will my package make it in the window, it’ll bonk him on the head so he can’t ignore it.

Sitting with these kinds of clients during a coaching session, I become hyper-alert, poised to act if they give me the slightest opening. When that tiny window arrives, I’m surgical. I don’t coat my message or bundle it in any way; I strip it down to its barest essence and deliver it simply and directly. Then I watch to see if it lands. If not, I wait for another opening and pitch it again.

Often, after the second or third attempt, I’ll stop the conversation and ask, “Have you heard what I’ve been saying?”

Sometimes that question will arrest the executive and we can move into the conversation I’ve been wanting to have. At those times I feel like I finally bonked the guy on the head and got his attention.

But other times the answer to my “did you hear me” question is a rather dismissive, “yes,” and the executive continues talking. At those times, I know my package didn’t make it through the window and the train is gone.

Three-step delivery process

My train platform analogy resonated with Natalie. She wanted me to teach her the skills so she could start pitching her own package through Marc’s racing window.

I started with a warning: trying to get the attention of a highly distracted person can be exhausting, and often unrewarding, work. But Natalie was eager for the challenge. Here are three actions to take when you’re on the platform and the train’s hurtling at you.

First, get alert.

Communicating with a highly distractible person is not chat. It’s not a casual conversation. It is not relaxing. It takes more mental energy than we usually devote to conveying information. Get focused. Become alert.

Second, strip down the message.

It’s imperative to start with the bottom line—the core of what you want them to know. Then stop talking. That may be all you get: the bottom line.

Your odds of success will increase if you can frame the bottom line so it’s about them. How does what you’re saying benefit them? Or what liability are you informing them about?

Reducing an idea to only its bottom line takes preparation. And limiting your comments to just the bottom line takes discipline. But adding detail before the person is fully engaged usually results in the package missing the window.

Third, repeat as necessary. Or call a halt.

Don’t be afraid to speak your bottom line sentence again. Verbatim. And again.

If you say it three times and still haven’t gotten engagement, make a statement that has no blame in it. Do not say, “Marc, you’re not listening to me!” Do not ask, “Have you heard what I’ve been saying?” (Earlier I told you that I say those exact words to my clients. And it’s true, I do. The nature of the coaching relationship allows me to challenge people that directly. I don’t recommend it for you.)

Instead, say something like, “I’m going to repeat myself because I think it’s really important.”

Finally, do not take the person’s inattention personally. Remain calm and neutral.

Breakthrough moments

Natalie was eager to try these new tools. At first, like a child learning to ride a two-wheeler, she was a little slow and wobbly. But by the time her coaching ended, she’d become quite adept at the three skills listed above, and often—not always!—was getting different results with Marc.

Much to my surprise, Andre had a breakthrough moment at our very next session.

He was telling me about one of his guys in the field whom he experienced as over-worked and exhausted. This field guy was not as sharp as he had been, and Andre was having trouble getting his performance back up

I wondered out loud to Andre if he experienced this guy as distracted. He said he did. I then said I had an analogy that might help him get through to this guy. He turned his attention to me.

I told him the analogy about the platform and the package and the window flying by (in abbreviated form, of course!). When I finished, he looked away but didn’t speak. Then he said, “Sometimes I think I’m that guy on the train.”

He began to talk about how distracted he is. And how it troubles him. It was the first real traction I’d felt in our coaching. As I say, it was a breakthrough moment I could have never predicted.

It’s likely that you have a distracted person in your life. If so, the three tools here can help get your message through.

But it is equally likely that there are times when you are the guy on the train, flying by, not even slowing down as people try to get their messages in through your tiny, moving window. It’s a busy and demanding world out there. We are all under pressure. Taking the time to slow down and focus on what other people are trying to tell you is a core competence of The Look & Sound of Leadership™.

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