Episode 12: The 11 Essentials of Leadership | Skill Three: Undivide Your Attention

Dennis Brouwer
CEO, Leadership Enthusiast, and Award-winning Navy Tactician.
The Brouwer Group

Dennis Brouwer is the CEO of The Brouwer Group, a business analytics firm that helps companies become more competitive, agile and customer-focused. He has over two decades of experience as a senior leader in sales, marketing, and product development roles, including five years as an executive with P&L responsibility for a $300m global IT services business.

He began his career as a naval flight officer and mission commander searching for Soviet submarines while deployed aboard USS Ranger and USS Enterprise. For the past five years, he has applied his military and business experience to the challenges of creative leadership, peak performance, and business strategy. He holds the certificate in leadership coaching from Georgetown University and is the author of “The Return on Leadership”, which focuses on the Vision, Engagement, and Execution as the key building blocks used by highly effective leaders.

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01:14 DH: All right, welcome back to the show, and I'm incredibly excited and thrilled to have Dennis Brouwer back on our show, the author of "Return on Leadership" and one of the most successful sales leaders I've ever had the chance to work with. He's a true business executive, a leadership enthusiast, and we're so thrilled to have you here, Dennis. Welcome to the show.

01:35 Dennis Brouwer: Well, thanks, Dan. It's always good to be here. I enjoy our conversations so much, it's great to be back.

01:41 DH: So as we move into these next episodes, this is an incredibly important skillset, and I think a lot of people could use some work on it, and I know I'm one of them. But let's talk about this next skillset that's gonna be critical to your success as a leader.

02:00 DB: Okay, so the next skillset we're gonna talk about today, which is essential action number three, is the ability to undivide your attention. Now undividing your attention is really kind of a play on words that reflects the fact that we are surrounded by applications, by data, by information, by people, by events that all seek to draw our attention, and by implication, to divide our attention. So this has become one of the epidemics of the modern age. We like to think that we can multitask but most all the research that's out there about the human brain says, "Actually, only really do one thing at a time." And when we think we're multitasking, we're switching between things.

02:44 DB: People confronted with that reality often say, "Well, yeah, but I can switch effortlessly between things very, very, quickly and smoothly. As a matter of fact, I do it so smoothly that I'm really kind of doing two things at once." So it's a way to reject the reality of human psychology, think that we can multitask, and just plug into everything that's around us from advertising, to information, to our work responsibilities that seeks to divide our attention and drag us off the priorities that we, hopefully, have clear in our minds every day. So that's really what this one's all about.

03:20 DH: I'm one of the worst when it comes to multitasking. And I did think that I could switch between things smoothly. As individuals in this world that we work in, when you think about undividing your attention and trying to get this focus that you need so that you can actually really, truly succeed at the one thing you're working on at that time, how do you do it? It's so challenging, as you said, the environment. And even in some cases, your work is requiring that you be that multitasker.

03:51 DB: Well, the basic principle behind this is one of being a focused participant. So there are a lot of conversations and a lot of relationships that we all have that we need to be part of. And the distinction that I'm drawing here is really between just kind of being there and giving a lip service, having that conversation while your cell phone lays on the desk in front of you, and/or as your screen streams stuff across, and really thinking that you're doing the task when actually you're just kind of phoning it in, to use an old analogy. So it's really all about being a focused participant.

04:28 DB: And what I'd like to do is to just reinforce something here. This ability to undivide your attention, and the other essential actions and leadership skills that we'll talk about are important as standalone skills. There's no doubt about that, that each one of these does stand alone. But I wanna remind your podcast listeners that the reason we're doing this is because of a broader context for leadership. And that is the fact that the 11 essentials reflect the psychological journey of the leader.

04:58 DB: Now, when a leader steps into a new role, they will be confronted with a pretty predictable set of psychological challenges, and they'll have to rise to that occasion as best they can. Now, to be clear, I'm not talking about, "Hey, you just stepped into a new job, you're the new leader, new manager. What's your 90-day plan?" And you set up, "Okay, I'm gonna get to know my direct reports. I'm gonna set up one-on-ones. I'm gonna set up a direct reports meeting once a month. We're gonna have an all-hands, and we're gonna... " That's the operational tempo. That's sort of the physical, "What are you gonna do that people focus on?"

05:33 DB: What we're really talking about here are essential actions that fit into the psychology of the leader, the challenges that the leader will face. The first one, of course, was the fact that you're a member of three teams. The second is that you need to, within the context of those three teams, understand your skillset and any deficits that you may have and put a plan around correcting that. And the third one now, in that context, is to undivide your attention. So I just wanna make sure people understand that the skillset we'll talk about today is absolutely critical leadership skill, but it's even more important because it's a building block in that overall flow of that psychology of leadership.

06:10 DB: So if we get back to that "undivide your attention," I like everybody to think about a business trip that you went on recently. You went from your home city of origin and you flew some place else, and you didn't have WiFi turned on while you were on the flight because you didn't, right? You wanted to read the latest magazine or catch up on something else, or take a nap, or whatever. So now, the wheels touched down and the air crew says, "Hey, you can turn on your cell phone, it's okay to use your mobile devices." You probably already got it turned on, and you're going, "Oh, man! I had all these texts, I had all these voicemails, I had all these emails. I've got alerts from my retirement account provider. I need to check the weather here," whatever. And now, I'm walking down the aisle of the airplane and I'm looking at my phone, I'm sorting through this, I'm banging into seats with my carry-on. I'm wondering, "Did I bring that coat on this flight? Oh, wait, I'm supposed to meet somebody as I get off the gate."

07:03 DB: And you're trying to do 100 different things as you're getting off that airplane. For me, that's pretty typical when I'm traveling for business, and I certainly see it in the people that I've worked with over the years.

07:15 DB: Now, let's think about a different airplane flight. And in this airplane flight, you're a skydiver. You've piled into a much smaller airplane, you climb to an altitude of, say, 15,000 feet. The doors open, the wind is rushing and roaring past the side of the airplane. You can hear the propellers outside churning along. You're preparing to go with your jump instructor and leap out that doorway. Are you thinking about text messages, or voicemails, or emails, or your retirement account at that point? Are you thinking about whether you brought a coat on that flight? I don't think so, right?

07:53 DB: You have, in that moment, in that probably terrifying, certainly exhilarating moment, decided to undivide your attention. You think of that as you being a focused participant, and that's the principle. But the most important concept behind this is that both those scenarios, at a great distance, are the same. You're a passenger on an airplane, you're getting off the airplane. In one case, you've allowed yourself to be distracted and dragged around by the applications, in the other, you haven't. And the thing that's important there is that you have made a decision. You've made a decision, you might say you've been forced into it, but you've made a decision to focus in the moment and be a 100% focused participant in that activity at that moment in time.

08:39 DH: And those two scenarios of the story really bring to light the impact. So as a leader, as you're shaping yourself, and you're going through this process, and you're in the business environment, you as the individual can control your environment when it's you. But when you're in this three teams environment, how can you apply this essential principle in everyday work when you're surrounded by your teams, your leaders, and your peers?

09:14 DB: Well, and that's where the real power of this principle becomes reality. And it becomes reality in our relationships that we have at work. So I will tell you that one of the most common things that happens that is revealed to managers, especially mid-level managers and to leadership coaches is that it is a wish. And that wish is, "I just wish they would listen. I wish my manager would listen." Sometimes people are hoping, they're wishing, and sometimes even praying that management will listen. Right?

09:55 DB: So one of the greatest applications of this, and one of the greatest challenges to leaders and managers is in that relationship where they're talking to their direct reports, their peers, or their boss that they actually listen. Now, that sounds like a really straightforward thing. And most people will tell you, "Yeah, I'm a pretty good listener." Certainly, a majority, in most situations where I ask the question, "How many people would call themselves good listeners?" there's certainly a majority. Some cases, a large majority of people who raised their hand. So I think everybody would except they sense a trap when I ask the question, right?

10:26 DB: If you look at research published by Psychology Today, you'll find that only about 10% of people are effective listeners. It's like, "Well, how can that be?" Well, let's examine the nature of listening. Like so many things, there's an external game, a physical part of it, and there's an internal game, a mental and a psychological part. So let's just look at the basic requirements to be a listener. The first requirement is that you allow someone to speak, right? And I know that sounds like a really low bar, but let's face it, we all know people who talk over us, who interrupt, and of course, that most amazing human in position, complete your sentences for you, right?

11:11 DB: So I won't even put a percentage around that, but there's a significant minority of people, let's put it that way, who when... If the first question here is that you have to allow people to speak, and you just have to shut up for a couple of minutes and allow someone to get their thought out, give them enough time for a couple of paragraphs, that's the most basic requirement.

11:31 DB: But the second requirement is what challenges all the rest of us. It's because as that other person is speaking, and we've graciously allowed some airtime now, we assume that since we are not speaking, we are listening. But in almost every case, that's not true. Because while that other person is speaking, what we are actually doing is we're preparing to speak. Because one of the things that humans hate is silence. We find silence uncomfortable. When we're in a group, we find it... It's just something that we have to dispel by talking.

12:09 DB: So the last thing that we want is for that other person to finish talking and there to be silence. So what we're doing is we're preparing to speak as that other person speaks. You can't... We already talked about this. You can't multitask. You can't both listen and prepare to speak because your brain is doing one or the other. You can try to jump back and forth between the two, but you lose context.

12:28 DB: So as we prepare to speak, we tend to be doing one of three things in a business environment. We listen to enough of what the person is saying to draw some conclusions, and we are now are preparing to top whatever was just told. So, "You get 102% of your sales plan during your best year, I had 107%. Your kid scored the winning goal, my kid got MVP." So there's that topping, that one-upmanship, which is a very normal... I don't know if it's normal, but it's a very common human approach to it. The second thing that we're preparing to do is to refute. So it's very common for us, especially in the business environment, to say, "Well yeah, I hear what you're saying, but that's not how it works." Or, "No, that won't work. Yeah, we tried that before, and here's where the problem was." So as that other person is trying to explain to us, really define points of what's concerning them, we're already deciding why it won't work. And so, we're gonna refute that in some way.

13:31 DB: But the third one is the greatest trap for managers and leaders. That as our people come to us, and they really wanna bare their soul, they really wanna explain what's troubling them, what they think is the greatest opportunity if we can take a fresh perspective on it. We, as managers, are busily solving their problems, even though we haven't been asked to solve a problem. Because most capable people who work for us aren't gonna come to us and say, "Hey, boss, I've got this really difficult problem I'm working on. I'd like you to solve it for me." Let's face it, if they're doing that, they're probably the wrong person for the role. But what they will come to with us is, "I've got this really difficult problem, and I'd like to talk with you about it. I'd like to talk it out with you. I'd just like to walk through the whole thing and see what surfaces here."

14:20 DB: And the real warning sign for a leader is that if you've got one of your direct reports, or a peer come in to you and saying, "Hey, here's... " They begin to explain the situation to you, and your response, especially if you cut them off, and say this, it's a real warning sign. The response is, "Why don't you just... " And then you complete the sentence. Because what you've done is you've come up with a trivial solution. Use of the word "just" has trivialized the problem, and you've now thrown out something that's just like, "Well, okay, that's not helpful. We got this trivial solution. It doesn't address the issue. And now it came from my boss, so how do I tell them they're wrong?" Right?


15:00 DB: So that combination of interactions around just having some airspace to talk into, and then being able to suspend that kind of thinking while the person just talks is really the... Probably the most relevant and high-impact place to practice undividing your attention. Now, the essential action that goes with that is really just reminding yourself and challenging yourself to listen to listen. And you can set the stage for that, right? It typically means putting the screens aside, it means doing the shutdown on your... At least, turning the screen off on your computer. Probably putting your tablet aside, closing the door is good. But the most important thing is to make eye contact and deliberately listen to listen. Let the other talk and actively suspend that kind of one-upmanship, the refutation that goes on, and then the problem solving, and actually just listening.

16:09 DB: What you'll find is that the individual who's speaking to you is gonna have greater confidence in you in a leadership, is gonna feel heard, which always feels good. And you know what? You're gonna learn things. You're gonna develop. You're gonna hear a whole new complete perspective for once from a different position in the organization.

16:28 DH: Well, I think... It's interesting, you talked about listening, and the screens aside, but when you think about the psychology of this as well. We all, as individuals, self-talk. So there's side conversations going on in our head, and you named a few of them, "Well, I have to think about how I'm gonna one up them or solve their problem," and things like that, but there's all these other things that are taking place. So how does a leader, instead of just shutting off their screens, actually shut off the self-talk?

17:00 DB: I think it starts with a couple of mechanical things, and one piece of the talk track reminder to a leader is, is I'm gonna sit down and do this person's review, or as I'm just gonna talk about what happened talk with them about what happened last month. I'm gonna first of all remind myself I can't multi-task, I can only do one thing at a time, and for the next 20 minutes or eight minutes or two minutes, I have committed to doing this one thing best to listening here. The second is to literally make eye contact because once you make eye contact with an individual, it drops a barrier around listening. So many times, we're looking around the room where we've got one eye on the screen and one eye on the door. If you can literally just change that physical habit and make eye contact, that is actually one of the real keys to being able to set yourself up to listen to listen.

17:54 DB: And here's the proof of that. I went through a one-year training program for the certificate in leadership coaching from Georgetown University, it's a very challenging program, and I did that about five years ago. And when I look back on that, it was great spending time with a whole new group of peers, the cohort, I got introduced to a bunch of new books and research and authors and that sort of thing, and came to understand, I think, more deeply, about the psychology of leadership.

18:19 DB: But I'll tell you that the single skill that leadership coaches learn, takes a year to learn it, to apply it and to practice it, is to listen. And that is simply to suspend judgment, to suspend problem-solving, and to actually listen to hear a person out. You don't know you're doing it when questions start to arise in your thinking instead of solutions. So instead of saying, "Why don't you just... " A question will come up, your natural human curiosity begins to kick in because you've allowed that person to tell their story and you'll have a question about, "So how did this all start? What's the most important part of that to you? Okay, what do you need from me? What is it you feel you're not getting? How would you like things to change? What would have to change for this to work?"

19:09 DB: So what you'll find when you're really listening, instead of declarative statements or responses that will come out, you'll find questions will begin to bubble up. And all of a sudden, you're having a rich conversation that you're both learning from.

19:21 DH: Wow. Another tremendous episode, Dennis. I really appreciate this, and for those listeners listening, I think one thing that came clear for me as a learner, I need to really recognize what the self-talk is and what the mechanical things are that are preventing me from becoming a better leader. So Dennis, thank you so much for joining us on this episode. And if anyone wants to learn more about the 11 essentials, how to buy your book or get in contact with you, how do they do that?

19:51 DB: So my book, The Return on Leadership, is really focused on vision and purpose, which is one of the 11 essentials we'll talk about. And that of course is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. If you'd like to connect with me, I'm dennis@dlbrouwer.com. That is spelled B-R-O-U-W-E-R. I've got that extraneous vowel in the middle, which is from my Dutch heritage, it's just like on a bottle of Amstel Light. Of course, I'm out there on Twitter and LinkedIn, I would love to connect. You can look at dlbrouwer.com, there's more information on The Return on Leadership and the 11 Essentials and some video that's out there as well and it'll direct you to my YouTube channel too.

20:26 DH: Yeah, fantastic. And for everyone else out there, also there's another great resource that Dennis provides. It's One Minute One Idea. So Dennis, you're a very busy individual, really appreciate you taking the time to join us today, and I look forward to the next episode.

20:43 DH: So, listeners, here's where you come in. If you have ideas for possible episode topics, like to be a guest on the show or know someone that would be a great B2B teacher or coach, make sure to connect with me on LinkedIn. You can find me by searching Danny D. Harris. You can also send me an email with the subject line, Minds On B2B ID or guest to dan.harris@mindson.com. The more input we get from listeners, the more the listeners, the better the podcast is gonna be. So, make sure to subscribe to iTunes or your favorite podcast player. And until next time, this is Dan Harris. Stay curious, connect often and learn always.


21:18 S1: Thanks for listening to today's Minds On B2B podcast. If you like what you heard today, please subscribe. Also, feel free to share this episode with your peers and colleagues, so we can keep bringing you quality content from the best minds in B2B. Until next time, from all of us at Minds On, have a great week.

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