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How successful leaders stay on top of things: building an attentional infrastructure

  • April 20, 2022
  • 5 min read
How successful leaders stay on top of things: building an attentional infrastructure

Monday morning, 7am. The CEO waits for coffee in the cafeteria. She mulls over a budget issue while keeping an eye on a television report about regulatory fines.

Suddenly, she overhears two shift workers complain about the new IT system. As she turns to find out more, the facilities manager swings by to ask if she will attend a retirement party. In the time it takes to make a flat white, the CEO’s attention is pulled in four different directions.

It is the CEO’s job to be on top of everything; the buck, as they say, stops with them. But attention is a finite resource. High-profile cases, such as the Volkswagen emissions scandal, demonstrate the consequences of management failing to focus on the right thing.

Meanwhile, we celebrate the ability to stay on top of things. There is even a phrase to show admiration for business leaders who get it right: “I don’t know how they do it.”

How they do it is what we set out to discover. Over two years, we shadowed and interviewed seven CEOs in the English National Health Service (NHS). Each looked after multiple hospitals and managed budgets exceeding £500 million.

Our research revealed that they instinctively use an attentional framework to keep on top of the right issues. We developed this into a tool that leaders can use to recognise and maximise the allocation of their most precious resource: their brain power.

One CEO told us: “The worst thing is for a CEO to learn about an issue from the press – you can start packing.”

While another added: “They do not understand that this is one of the hundred things I deal with…they want to feel that we addressed the issue with great care.”

Meet the attention thieves

Before we introduce the framework, it is important to look at the three challenges to a leader’s attentional resources:

Variety – prioritising the right issues, both immediately and in the long term.
Fragmentation – allocating full attention to multiple issues while also being seen to do so.
Volume – too much information will overwhelm; too little and things will be missed.
The attentional infrastructure

The attentional infrastructure is the framework that leaders implicitly use to regulate volume, fragmentation, and variety. The contents will be personal to each leader and the context in which they work, and are best demonstrated by examples from our study.

Conquering volume

Though there is an ever-expanding array of digital tools and dashboards to help leaders stay on top of things, the CEOs in the study always complemented technology (and often sidelined it) in favour of formal and informal meetings to regulate their daily information feeds. One even used a visit to the cafeteria as an opportunity to monitor their environment.

Though corridor meetings and walkabouts were informal, they formed part of a routine that ensured the CEOs collected information they may have missed in formal meetings or by consulting stats on a performance dashboard.

Conquering fragmentation

The CEOs in our study viewed ‘multitasking’ as ‘multi single tasking’, dividing their day into islands of attentional focus. In many cases, this was simple: they read notes on the way to a meeting, paid full attention during discussions, and tied everything up at the end.

For trickier issues (for example, staff dismissal), quick segmentation was not so easy. One of the CEOs in our study agonised over such a decision for around ten days, consulting her closest team daily. By doing so, she maintained her attention, enabling her to make sense of the problem and finally close it off.

Conquering variety

To focus on what they deemed important, the CEOs weeded out ‘small fry’ issues. Practices ranged from a morning meeting with a PA to action emails to the immediate delegation of tasks to colleagues.

Some CEOs found that obligations, such as financial reporting and board meetings, were a roadblock to focusing on what they deemed important. To counter this, they built their issues into the agendas of regular meetings.

The attentional infrastructure will enable leaders to recognise and evaluate an activity that is often considered implicit.

It will not only pinpoint gaps but reveal roadblocks to their goals.

For example, if a CEO is strategy focused, it will show how much of their attention is consumed by detail.

Ironically, the tool is yet another thing that will demand a leader’s attention.

However, revisiting it on a regular basis will enable them to sharpen their focus and achieve more in all areas of work.

Ten questions to assess your attentional infrastructure

  1. What does my infrastructure look like?
  2. Do I have the right combination of routines, relationships, and tools (technology, filing systems etc) to stay on top of things?
  3. Am I seen by my stakeholders to be paying attention?
  4. How much of my attentional infrastructure is devoted to obligations rather than what is important?
  5. What does it help me to see?
  6. What might I be missing and why?
  7. What do I need more or less of?
  8. Is my attentional infrastructure getting in the way of me making a difference?
  9. How suited is my attentional infrastructure to my personality?
  10. Do I need a coach or mentor to help me focus my attention?
    This article was written by Davide Nicolini and Maja Korica and originally appeared on the Warwick Business School (WBS) website. For more information on WBS programmes at The Shard, please visit wbs.ac.uk/go/london
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