Practical Leadership

Leaders Pay Attention to the Little Things

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“Don’t sweat the small stuff.” That’s what leaders hear constantly as we’re challenged to keep a strategic focus. It’s generally good advice, particularly for senior or executive leaders, but the maxim to keep your eyes on the horizon is not carte blanche to ignore relevant details. The real trick is to figure out which details are the important ones. Just like driving a car, we have to both keep our eyes on the road, and mind the instrument panel. We can’t simply stare at the horizon without watching our speed and engine temperature, nor can we keep our eyes inside the car without watching where we’re going.

In my book, Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams, I share an extreme example to prove the point that some details are important:

In 2000 Air France Flight 4590 crashed on takeoff, killing all aboard. Ultimately, 113 people were killed and a $107 million aircraft was lost because a 17-inch long by 1-inch wide strip of metal on the runway punctured the fuel tank, starting a fire that ultimately caused the Concorde to crash. The investigation later determined that the metal strip that fell from the aircraft that took off just prior to the Concorde, the one that caused the deaths of 113 people, came from an engine of a DC-10 from Houston. The crash investigation determined that the strip of metal was neither manufactured nor installed properly. The inattention of the maintenance crews in Houston, 5,300 miles away, resulted in a disaster in Paris months later.

I know that an aircraft crash is an extreme example—most of us will not fly a $107 million Concorde—but it illustrates how a seemingly small detail can have very big consequences.

In any sufficiently large organization, there are details that matter and details that don’t. Senior leaders will drive organizational behavior by what things get their attention. If the executive pays attention to “queep” then the entire organization gets dragged into the quagmire of collecting and measuring meaningless data. Conversely, if the data gathered and measured is actionable and relevant to the strategic direction of the organization, then that organization will grow and thrive. So how do you know which details are relevant and which are “queep?”

I’ve found it productive to ask myself two questions when selecting which details to track as a senior leader:

Does it help me (not my subordinates) make decisions?

Does it inform my intelligence about the organization?

Helping Me Make Decisions—Not My Subordinates. In an information saturated environment, it’s very easy for executives to put their teams into “Powerpoint Hell” gathering data and preparing charts for no purpose. Avoid the temptation to gather data just because you can. Leaders have to understand that just because the data is available doesn’t mean it’s relevant. Data gathering and analysis consumes staff time and money–gathering the wrong data wastes both. In general, details that help me make decisions about the strategic direction of the enterprise are those that expend dollars or manpower, or both, on progress toward the organizational goals. Senior leaders need only focus on those details that directly influence strategic decisions. Those details could be anything, but are generally resource-related. The trick is not to attempt to manage all details…but rather only the critical ones. Process analysis tools like process mapping or critical path evaluation are ways to help figure out what’s driving organizational performance.

Informing My Intelligence About the Organization. Besides charting the course for the organization, leaders also have to care for the people in their charge. Understanding the health of the organization requires leaders to pay attention to details as well, but different sorts of details than performance metrics. Even high performing teams will lose their edge if leaders ignore the morale and welfare concerns of the people. In this regard, seemingly unimportant details can significantly affect the team. If executives find team members haven’t heard their message because mid- and low-level leaders in the organization aren’t communicating, if organizational policies and procedures are ignored, if staff payroll suddenly shows a big change in sick leave or vacation time taken, then executives must sit up and take notice. These are all indicators that something is amiss. Whenever I took over an organization, I made it a point to visit all the work areas and meet the people. I could tell a great deal about the health of the organization by seeing people in their environment, and taking a peek at their work centers. If the bulletin board was out of date, or the area was sloppy, or people seemed reluctant to talk, I was sure there was a problem that required my attention. It’s hard for busy senior leaders to get “out and about,” but get out they must–and on a regular basis.

Details matter. Not all details, of course, and there isn’t a checklist to determine which ones are important and which ones are “queep.” Smart leaders know when to check their speedometer, and when to keep their eyes on the road.

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