“Squirrel” Syndrome: a Modern Leadership Challenge
Post by David Everhart
I live near Hyde Park in London, an amazingly large patch of nature in the middle of this world capital. We chose this location in part for our little dog Rosie, who spent her life to date on the edge of Boulder, Colorado, surrounded by vast open spaces. Proximity to a large park where she can run around off-leash gives her freedom, exercise, and the mental stimulation of her favorite past time: chasing squirrels. (She will never catch one, and rarely comes closer than 3 meters, so everyone is safe.) Watching Rosie chase rodents up trees reminds me at times of an email inbox: an endless parade of mostly unfiltered “squirrels” that most global business people chase from early morning to late at night.
One of the Great Leadership Challenges of the early 21st Century is figuring out how to regain control of information and communication. Not long ago, senior leaders in global organisations had human filters (amazing people called “secretaries” until the 1980s, then “executive assistants” thereafter) to help ensure that these high-paid folk, with correspondingly high levels of complexity and responsibility to manage, would only be bothered by the information, phone calls, and “memos” (remember those?!) that mattered. These days, with mobile phones, tablets, laptops, universal access to digital communication across the globe 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and typically limited use of “human” filters, the barriers are gone. We all swim (sometimes drown) in a sea of data.
I had coffee this week with an executive coach who works with luxury retail executives. She told me about a 35-year-old client who oversees a large women’s clothing business and is on the verge of a nervous breakdown because of the information overload. Most global executives I work with tell me they never really take vacations because the email pile up is so huge (often two hundred per day) that even one week offline requires two or three weeks recovery time. Therefore they never really shut down and recover, which is the main purpose of a vacation. One China-based executive told me he went completely offline for 10 days last year to go on a Himalayan trek but was so worried about the inbox overflow that he never really relaxed. He had 1500 unread emails in his inbox upon returning to work. Clearly, a different approach is needed.
The issue becomes even acuter in global leadership roles. The Corporate Executive Board (CEB) published research a few years ago that shows that leaders with global roles have less authority, a lack of accurate market information, more stakeholders, more responsibility, and far more stakeholders than do leaders in domestic roles. The need for filtering grows as roles expand to other geographies.
Recent neuroscience research clearly shows the need for sleep, for exercise, and for breaks several times per day to enable the brain to function at its highest level. The yoga boom in the U.S. is perhaps one sign that people are looking for ways of coping with this information tsunami. Linda Stone, a veteran of Apple and Microsoft, coined the term “continuous partial attention” years ago to highlight this attention deficit issue that continues to plague leaders worldwide. We seem to be committed to this trend: by 2020 the average business user is projected to have 2 or 3 mobile devices in her or his pocket and briefcase.
Back to the squirrels for a minute. A single squirrel is cute: with their fluffy tails, little front paws that can deftly hold an acorn, and ability to scamper across lawns and up trees, they seem adorable. But what if Rosie went to Hyde Park and was confronted with hundreds of the little beasts all at once. Which ones would she chase? My guess is she would tear around frantically for about 5 minutes, and then just stop and sit down, realizing that the endeavor to reach the end of the chase, to get all of the squirrels up into trees, was futile. If we can reduce our “squirrels” AND sort out which have the biggest acorns, we might make progress in conquering or at least managing this syndrome.
The Squirrel Syndrome Challenge: What ideas do you or your organization have for helping filter and prioritize the information that leaders receive so that they have more mindshare to think strategically? Please leave us a comment in the section below and we will compile your answers to share in a future posting.
David Everhart served as President of Aperian Global, conducting leadership development programs, intercultural management assessments, and executive coaching assignments for American, Asian, African, and European management teams at multi-national firms across multiple industry sectors.