C-Suite Lifestyle

Being Present: How to navigate leadership in an age of fast change

A fellow father came up to me recently and shared a story about how his ten-year-old son came running home from school into the kitchen and asked for a chocolate biscuit. When the father asked him for the magic word, his son replied, “NOW!”

Although leading in an instant generation can appear daunting – with the relentless expectations of team members, customers, consumers and shareholders driven by ever-evolving technology, which has enabled work and life to go faster and faster with real-time services and 24/7 access to almost everything – ‘now’ is a timeless principle which, if you embrace it, helps you to get the most out of the present moment, which in reality is the only time there is.

In an interview with Paula Stannett, Chief People Officer, Heathrow she talked passionately about the ability to be present:

“A real strength for leading fast change is the ability to be present and to read what is going on. This enables you to sense the whole system and understand the true reality of what you are facing. In particular being able to read what people aren’t saying enables you to be attuned to the psychological and emotional climate that will have a major impact on leading change at pace. You can only do this if you are present.”

Andy Cosslett, Chairman, Kingfisher plc & England Rugby Football Union gave this perspective:

“In troubled times it is essential to be present. I am a great believer in putting yourself out to be with people, which means not having the smartest things to say. Sometimes it is just about sitting next to people and being available. I lead through presence and visibility. For instance, several years ago when we went through a global finance crisis, the business I was leading was badly damaged. We lost a lot of cash flow and had to make a layer of senior management redundant which meant that the next level had to step up.

This population needed to feel the strength of the remaining leaders. Being relaxed and confident in the height of a crisis lifts people up and gives them belief. Make sure you take the time to be there for others rather than just disappear. Never take your phone out when you are providing visible leadership. Ask questions that people have never been asked. Being present starts with an interest and recognition about the impact you are having. Walk slowly. Connect. Your job is to make people feel better. Remember that leaders are peddlers of hope and bring light in times of darkness.”

I was working with a CFO who was approaching the milestone age of 50. Andrew had surpassed his career and life expectations. His grandfather had worked down the coal mines and his father had been a professional sportsman whose career had ended prematurely through injury. Andrew had grafted hard to become a member of an executive committee for a PLC and was well respected in the finance community. Married and with teenage children, he appeared to have it sorted.

In our coaching partnership it emerged that Andrew was frustrated. Trying to juggle his multiple responsibilities left him feeling incomplete in every role including as an executive member, team leader, father, husband, friend and member of society. I asked him: what was his best bet for happiness? Retirement. Ten more years of misery and then he was going to have a great life! Not a great strategy.

I introduced to him the concept of being present and challenged him to think about what would be different if he was able to be in the here and now, rather than waiting for some mythical future scenario. Following a lifetime of predicting and planning future options it was extremely tough for Andrew to make the mental shift required to be present. I asked him to consider the benefits. He suggested:

  • Better attention and concentration resulting in better decision-making
  • Greater ability to listen and absorb information
  • Deeper relationships through strengthening connections
  • Increased clarity through reflection and thinking

If these were potential benefits that appeared quite reasonable, I then asked Andrew what could get in the way of realizing them:

  • Too busy to be present
  • Too many tasks to accomplish
  • Too many requests to manage
  • Too many interruptions

I challenged him to think about how many of these barriers were in his gift to solve. It turned out that he could do something about all of them. As he continued to look at the numerous distractions that he perceived as preventing him from being present, including demands from the business, meetings and travel, Andrew reflected on how he could manage these differently. He recognized that through influencing stakeholders and changing his mindset he could be far more present and effective.

Maximizing the power of being present requires a shift in mindset. I have identified three to consider:

  1. Autopilot. Brain scans reveal that when our mind wanders, it switches into ‘autopilot’ mode, enabling us to carry on doing tasks quickly, accurately and without conscious thought. So, although autopilot is a friend when it comes to doing things without thinking, it interferes with our ability to be present, which requires conscious thought.
  2. Choice. This is the ability to choose our mindset in any given situation, which determines how we respond to events. Probably the most profound insight on the power of choice comes from the work of Victor Frankl. Frankl was an Austrian psychologist as well as a Holocaust survivor. In his momentous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl shared the observation, “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (2004, 75). Life happens; however, we choose our response to life happening. Being present is a choice.
  3. Intention. Research shows that our brains are constantly being shaped by experience. Most of us have very different thoughts and behaviours than we did 20 years ago. This shift is known as neuroplasticity; changes in brain structure and organization as we experience, learn and adapt. Through neuroplasticity – the ‘muscle building’ part of the brain – we become what we think and do. Therefore, we can deliberately develop our mindset in conscious ways and become intentional about being present.

What difference would it make for you to be present?

It’s interesting to note that according to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs (2011, 31, 34), one of the most influential books Jobs read was Be Here Now by Ram Dass (1971). A former Harvard professor, Ram Dass arrived at the conclusion that the most important spiritual truth is “to simply be here now”.

In other words, being present helps you get the most out of now. It changes your experience of time because rather than constantly feeling that you don’t have enough time, when you are present time expands. By setting a deliberate intention to be present you will develop a new muscle which, over time, will become a habit and enable you to better navigate leadership in an age of fast change.

Being Present Toolkit

  1. Set an intention. Upon waking make a conscious decision to be present as a leader
  2. Pay attention. Notice when you are being present or not, and why.
  3. Be deliberate. Reset your intent in any given moment to return to the present.
  4. Remove distractions. Take practical steps like switching off push notifications on your devices so you are not constantly being pinged.
  5. Get feedback. Seek views from people who experience your leadership focused on your ability to be present.

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Ben Renshaw
Ben Renshaw is one of the world’s most sought-after leadership coaches and speakers, working with C-suite executives in FTSE 100 companies including Coca-Cola, Heathrow, IHG, P&G, Sainsbury’s, Sky and Unilever. Previous popular books are Purpose, LEAD, and SuperCoaching. Ben is also the author of Being, Purpose, Lead!, and SuperCoaching, and you can visit his website here. Ben Renshaw is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.