The relentless twin demands of performing for today and transforming for tomorrow, mean that leaders are grappling with an accelerated phase of workforce and industry change and disruption, but is enough being done to elevate leadership attention? Hack Future Lab founder and future of leadership thinker Terence Mauri sets out why attention is the new oil in a world of overload, distraction and burnout.
If there’s one piece of advice for leaders this year it would be to remember that data isn’t the new oil. Attention is the new oil. Attention to context-setting, pace-setting and direction-setting. Attention to learning and un-learning. Attention to shaping a bold future and making things happen. A leader’s attention, pace and mindset are under constant pressure when it comes to navigating the future of work and leading and embracing perpetual transformation.
There’s The Great Resignation (Record levels of employees quitting their jobs) or The Big Quit. The Great Reassessment (2/3 of people are rethinking their purpose at work). The Turnover Tsunami. The Attrition Supercycle. The Hybrid Paradox (what’s your Workforce Hybrid Strategy?) and the Race to Reskill (one of the best ways to outpace the forces of disruption). No wonder, according to Hack Future Lab, that 78% of leaders report record levels of anticipatory anxiety about the future. We’re worried about our health, climate change, our job security, our wellbeing and automation. Anticipatory anxiety and performance are like oil and water. It’s an innovation and growth killer.
Research at Hack Future Lab shows that attention—and leadership attention in particular—has been blown up into millions of fragmented pixels and the accelerants have been Covid-19 and the changing nature of work, the workplace and the workforce.
- 93% believe their leadership attention is key to growth but only 27% believe it’s a strength.
- 68% report either themselves or their teams are at risk of overload and overwhelm.
- 63% highlight a productivity paradox during the pandemic where performance increased but well-being dropped.
- 56% believe they spend more time on shallow work than deep work.
- 41% can link decision making to enterprise value and strategy.
- 20% excel at decision making.
The Leadership Tax
The #1 takeaway is that leaders are tired. Zoom fatigue. Meeting fatigue. Collaboration fatigue. Solution fatigue. Brain fog. With over 41 trillion dollars of enterprise value at risk and 93% of leaders expecting significant industry disruption over the next five years, leadership attention has become a leader’s call-to-action challenge this year. Competitive advantage fades away faster than at any time in recent history. Just look at the floundering fortunes of indoor cycling upstart Peloton (share price down nearly 80 per cent in the last 12 months). Now, the half-life of a company has shrunk to one year or less and reimagination is the new execution. To stay on top, focus on three imperatives to cut through the noise and focus on what matters:
- Who we are: Strengthen identity, belonging and put purpose to work.
- How we decide: Make high quality, high-velocity decisions; not taking a risk is a risk.
- How we grow: Prioritise long-term vitality, reimagination and sustainable growth.
The Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon said: ‘Too much information leads to a poverty of attention.’ We pay a leadership tax every time our attention is hijacked by a pointless meeting or we schedule back-to-back Zoom calls with no ‘white space’ in the day for reflecting and refuelling. This means shallow impact rather than deep impact and busy work rather than our boldest work.
So, what can you do differently today to help your organization protect, amplify and sustain the highest return on attention that is key for a growth-led, daring and resilient future?
- Focus on velocity, not speed.
The reason is simple. Speed is the time rate at which you’re moving along a path, while velocity is the rate and direction you’re heading in. Speed without aligned direction can lead to strategy or culture drift and waste precious talent and resources.
- Fight complexity with simplicity.
When you run into a problem you can’t solve, don’t make it smaller — make it bigger. Today’s challenges can’t be solved with yesterday’s thinking. Thinking small and being an incrementalist depletes your ambition and energy. You’ll ignite purpose and spark new ideas and fresh perspectives when you embrace the urgency and scale of your biggest challenges.
- Have meeting-free days.
It sounds obvious, but you’re having too many meetings! Hack Future Lab’s research highlights that since the Pandemic, the number of back-to-back meetings has doubled and are often scheduled with no breaks in between. Too many wasteful meetings lead to a higher cognitive and leadership tax. Having a meeting-free day increases autonomy, engagement, focus and resilience by over 3X.
- Have a ‘No’ strategy.
Hack Future Lab’s research highlights that 83% of leaders are drowning in too many priorities and over-commitments. This erodes attention and doubles the risk of shallow work (low contribution) versus deep work (high contribution). A ‘no’ strategy is one of the best forms of optimisation and a powerful way to protect attention. It’s a clarifier, a simplifier and a multiplier of ROI. Not return on investment. Return on Intelligence.
Pay Attention to Attention
I hear that success breeds success, but I think success can corrupt success too. Without meta-awareness and committed attention to your inner world (blind spots, reflection, learning) and outer world (people, risks, growth), it’s difficult to stay ahead of change. Worse, leaders get trapped in their optimism bubbles. To paraphrase psychologist Daniel Kahneman ‘we become blind to our blindness’ and in particular, change blindness.
Hack Future Lab’s research shows that leaders with heightened levels of inner attention and outer attention are significantly better at embracing humility to their blind spots and biases as well as spotting risks before they become emergencies, and seizing new paths to growth. Leading a future that is bold and growth-led is not about time. It’s about deliberate and thoughtful attention to yourself, others and the world around you. It leads to empathy, more inclusivity and more joy at work. Attention is a limited resource and the rarest and purest form of generosity a leader can give in a world of overload. Are you ready to pay attention to attention?
Terence Mauri is the founder of Hack Future Lab, a global management think tank and a leading management thinker on leadership, disruption and change. He has been described as ‘an outspoken and influential thinker on the future of leadership’ by Thinkers50. His new book The 3D Leader: Take your leadership to the next dimension is out now.