Leadership lessons from a Wall Street consultant

By Felix Salmon
May 30, 2012

I’ve been spending much more time than usual on Facebook, over the past week — you’d think the company has been in the news, or something like that. And so I found myself this evening clicking on a classic clickbait headline — “Two Lists You Should Look at Every Morning” — which had been shared approvingly by my ex-boss, and which came with the somewhat respectable logo of the Harvard Business Review.

The article in question isn’t long, but it is pretty much everything you hate about the HBR. It’s written by some consultant who loves to talk about “leadership” a lot, and who loves to use phrases like “platform for talent”. What’s more, he’s ever so keen on focus, and eliminating distractions. Apparently, when you’ve got some dead time while standing in an elevator, the wrong thing to do is to use that time for something productive, like dashing off a quick email. Email, you see, is a distraction from more important things, like, um, working out who else might be in the elevator. Or, single-mindedly trying to win some pointless gong:

After the CEO busted me in the elevator, he told me about the meeting he had just come from. It was a gathering of all the finalists, of which he was one, for the title of Entrepreneur of the Year. This was an important meeting for him — as it was for everyone who aspired to the title (the judges were all in attendance) — and before he entered he had made two explicit decisions: 1. To focus on the meeting itself and 2. Not to check his BlackBerry.

What amazed him was that he was the only one not glued to a mobile device. Were all the other CEOs not interested in the title? Were their businesses so dependent on them that they couldn’t be away for one hour? Is either of those a smart thing to communicate to the judges?

There was only one thing that was most important in that hour and there was only one CEO whose behavior reflected that importance, who knew where to focus and what to ignore. Whether or not he eventually wins the title, he’s already winning the game.

This one story is reasonably impressive in that it inadvertently tells you everything you need to know about the leadership industry. For one thing, the people who are most successful, in this industry, tend to be obscene flatterers: whatever your client does, he does it better than any of his competitors, and he’s “winning the game”. When CEOs ask for advice, what they really want is flattery: they want to be told how brilliant their decisions are, and that the only thing which would make those decisions even more brilliant would be if they were made even more decisively.

And secondly, CEOs will go to extraordinary lengths to be flattered: not only by paying consultants enormous sums of money to tell them how brilliant they are, but also by putting enormous effort into maneuvering to be awarded a profoundly meaningless title like Entrepreneur of the Year. Our CEO, here, could have tried to get something vaguely useful out of the meeting, by trying to learn from the various other entrepreneurs and judges who were there; instead, he treated it as a zero-sum competition, where there could be only one winner.

Such a person laps up stuff like this:

The speed with which information hurtles towards us is unavoidable (and it’s getting worse). But trying to catch it all is counterproductive…

A study of car accidents by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute put cameras in cars to see what happens right before an accident. They found that in 80% of crashes the driver was distracted during the three seconds preceding the incident. In other words, they lost focus — dialed their cell phones, changed the station on the radio, took a bite of a sandwich, maybe checked a text — and didn’t notice that something changed in the world around them. Then they crashed.

The world is changing fast and if we don’t stay focused on the road ahead, resisting the distractions that, while tempting, are, well, distracting, then we increase the chances of a crash.

This being an HBR blog post, and therefore more of a book excerpt than an actual blog post, there’s no link to the study in question. But it comes up pretty easily with a Google search. And guess what:

crashes.tiff

It turns out, if you look at all of the crashes in the survey, just one third of them were associated solely with the “secondary tasks” being talked about here, and only about 40% had secondary tasks as a contributory factor at all. The only way you can get anywhere near 80% is in the fact that 78% of crashes were associated with secondary tasks or non-specific eye glances, or driving-related inattention to the forward driveway (for instance, looking to the side when changing lanes), or drowsiness.

Evidently, what happens when you really focus on your work, when you start every day by making “good time to pause, prioritize, and focus”, what you end up with is stupid exaggerations and errors like saying 80% when the true number, freely available online, is only 40%.

Or maybe what you end up with is a life lived in a bubble of self-affirmation, where the glorious serendipity of Twitter or Facebook — even the occasional link emailed to you by a well-meaning friend — is ruthlessly pruned from your life, so that you can digest only information pre-chewed for you by subordinates and consultants, all of whom are extremely well versed in the art of telling you exactly what you want to hear.

So what does it mean that this self-evidently ignominious blog post, two three years after it was written, is still being passed around the upper echelons of the consultant-sphere, complete with its 270 comments? (“Wow this is incredible story for me . I will do my best to apply this in my everyday life.”) Part of it is that the post seems to have turned into something of an HBR evergreen, a bit like “Six-pack abs! See results in just 9 days!” over at Men’s Health. And that fact, in itself, is telling. HBR’s readers, it seems, are perennially starved for little blog posts telling them that they’re not self-centered enough, and that they should try to cut down on annoying things like paying attention to unexpected things the outside world might send their way.

If you want to be a leadership guru, pay attention. Don’t say anything which requires actual thought: just give your clients permission to do as little as possible, while remaining magnificently untroubled by self-doubt. Then you, too, might end up with lucrative consulting contracts for “Allianz, American Express, Brunswick Group, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan Chase, FEI, GE Capital, Merck, Clear Channel, Nike, UNICEF, and many others.” Yeah, I noticed how finance-heavy that list was, too.

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Comments
20 comments so far

There is so much wrong with this HBR article; you have only scratched the surface. Articles like this are popular because they peddle the comforting myth that the secrets of success are simple, easy to apply, unambiguous, and can be reduced to ‘good habits’.

Although they don’t stand up to critical analysis, they achieve popularity because they are loaded with cues that convey a potent mix of authority and social proof (as outlined in Robert Cialdini’s studies of influence).

Given that (some people think that) psychopaths are over-represented in the C-level suites of many corporations, articles such as this, and the consulting advice that rides on the back of them, are highly attractive to those who are more interested in looking as if they are competent leaders than actually being effective.

No doubt your ex-boss is the exception that proves the rule. But he certainly knows how to annoy you.

Malcolm Sleath, London UK

Posted by Malcolm12boxes | Report as abusive

I don’t want to defend HBR, but the advice itself isn’t bad. Need to take an occasional minute in between “doing” just for “being”, both for sanity and to give random creative thought the opportunity to act. Sometimes that means putting down the electronic devices, not merely using them for play.

Moreover, if you have the time to meet with somebody for ANY reason then you should have the time to give them a few minutes of your complete attention. Doesn’t mean that you won’t be interrupted by something urgent, but make an effort.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

I think TFF’s interpretation of the HBR advice is great. I just doubt that that is what the original writer meant.

Posted by RogerS | Report as abusive

Felix, I take it then you are on the side of texting while driving?
HBR is annoying because it can offer platitude as insight and hucksters as experts. With any single article, though, it’s tough to tell what you are dealing with.
We really don’t know how successful the consultant in question is – I could say I consult for AT&T and it would be virtually impossible to root out the truth, not that anyone would bother.
And we don’t know if the advice he has written for HBR resembles the advice he gives CEOs. A consultant’s work product is heavily tailored to the client, thus inappropriate for a general interest magazine.
What you are reading is basically an advertisement for his services. No one would grade the quality of, say, GEICO Insurance, based on how tall the gecko is. (Though getting his facts wrong is a bad sign.)

Posted by RZ0 | Report as abusive

My pet peeve in business is people doing something else while in a meeting (I’m a CEO). I don’t care how good you think you are at multi-tasking, you’re not. Period. And nothing is more important than full attention in a meeting that has a purpose (there’s a cottage industry for you consultants out there in rooting out useless meetings). Why are some meetings useless? Because no one really pays attention and we have to talk about things 3 times because some of you insist on looking at your phones when someone else is talking (I notice. You’ll notice too when you don’t go anywhere from your present position).

But Felix put his finger on something far more interesting here. That obnoxious, preening, sycophancy that occurs whenever someone with a C in front of their title is around. But in defense, it’s easy to believe you’re special, great, and fantastic when no one ever disagrees with you because “they’re not a team player” (I’ve been told this numerous times at different jobs) because they dare to tell the truth. That’s the problem with American business. No one can tell the truth. Just like in the election. No one can say “Hey this guy Mitt is a liar because he tells one group one thing and another group the opposite”. See that was called “lying” where I grew up, not politics. Or you can’t make a statement about religion because it’s not PC, like saying “anyone who believes the earth is 6k years old is psychotic and needs treatment” or “Mormonism believes that you get your own planet when you die inhabited by all your relatives which, to put it mildly, is bizarre”.

So you get what is produced here in business and politics. People who are never actually told the truth, and people around them who never will outright say the truth. And that, in the end, is what this entire economic mess is about. I’ve seen it first hand.

Posted by skyman123 | Report as abusive

Peter B’s credentials include not only an MBA from Columbia in “General Management,” but a BA from Princeton in . . . “Everything 20th Century.”

Hmm. I’ve got some questions about the 20th Century, maybe he could help. . . .

But there’s more: “He is [also] a Master Certified Coach and a Certified Yoga Instructor.”

SOLD!!

That’s HBR’s lineup: nuthin’ but homerun hitters.

http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id= 39139641

Posted by dedalus | Report as abusive

I guess that’s the difference between New Yorkers and us non-New Yorkers – the only time I’m in an elevator is when I’m traveling, and need to get up to my sixth-floor hotel room. I use stairs for anything under six floors, because I need the exercise. But I guess New Yorkers use fitness clubs for that purpose, where they can check out who else is there.

You know, sometimes even leadership consultants should just spend a little time chilling out.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

A lot of these vacuous HBR articles appear as trending on my LinkedIn profile and this one came along a few days ago – I’m guessing much of its popularity derives from and is reinforced from that site; consultants tend to be enthusiastic users of LinkedIn and easy targets for link-bait articles about leadership (said the consultant).

Posted by J_F | Report as abusive

OK, so the blog post misinterpreted a study and was perhaps too flattering to a CEO. But it’s a gross distortion to say that the post argues that CEOs or anyone else “should try to cut down on annoying things like paying attention to unexpected things the outside world might send their way.” The point is that way too many people are so glued to their smartphones that they forget to interact with the real human beings right around them.

Moreover, they need to hear the advice to put down their phones much more than they need the convenient fiction that to pay any attention to their friends and colleagues would be to miss out on the “glorious serendipity” of Twitter.

Posted by StuartBuck | Report as abusive

I wonder what happened around 5/12/11 that had the hbr post rise from the grave.
But more importantly, cliffhanger!
I hope that tech ceo won the entrepreneur of the year award, he sounds like a true leader of leaders, with a touch of the common man to keep him humble and hungry.

Posted by thispaceforsale | Report as abusive

Curmudgeon — you know that many, many buildings in New York higher than six floors, right?

Posted by jfruh | Report as abusive

Curmudgeon — you know that many, many buildings in New York higher than six floors, right?

Posted by jfruh | Report as abusive

jfruh, yeah. That’s the difference between New York and not New York.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive

Felix is against consultants (good) but he is for distractions.

Because he is a blogger.

Posted by Eericsonjr | Report as abusive

The real problem with the V.Tech story and its use is that it looks after the fact at accidents. It doesn’t measure how often you’re distracted and don’t crash. The study is fine but the use of it is plainly stupid: you can’t know when a problem will arise or when an accident will occur so it’s absolutely ridiculous to say “focus, focus, focus” when a) maybe focus will cause an accident by something as simple as blinkering you and b) it’s simply impossible to focus all the time. You don’t know what you need to focus on all the time. That text message may be an important business problem. You glance at it and save your business. Or you don’t because you’re focused and it’s too late. Silly gibberish idiotic prattling about focus.

Posted by jomiku | Report as abusive

@jomiku, am I reading you right? Are you arguing that focusing on driving makes a driver more likely to have an accident?!?

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

Felix – I think the author has a valid point. So many workers today are besieged by information overload. You may be able to track this. You’re smart, and your livelihood depends on aggregating tons of data. But many people can’t analyze and synthesize data like you. I’ve spoken with quite a few executives, and the constant stream of information is problematic. People have to learn how to turn it off sometimes.

Posted by Ademanaonge | Report as abusive

Funny how the President of the United States is able to manage the entire Executive branch of the US government for a salary of around 400K a year.

Conclusion: Most CEO’s are vastly overpaid

Posted by mfw13 | Report as abusive

Wow this is incredible story for me . I will do my best to apply this in my everyday life.

Posted by yeahyeahyeahx | Report as abusive

I don’t know about anyone else, but whether it was in school or in the workplace, I’ve always encountered people who I’ve thought “are terrible at leading”. Some people just naturally know how to be successful and who can lead others in the same direction. But then there are some who are awful at both. I never wanted to be the latter so I’m always looking for ways to grow personally, professionally, and as a leader to be as successful as I can. A friend lent me a book she just read called “How to Avoid the Common Failure” by Michael Horton. You can find out more on his website http://www.hortonadvantedge.com and you can pick up the book at http://www.gettothepointbooks.com. She highly recommends doing both. It’s a great reference and motivational book to really give you a push in the right direction!

Posted by lsmith0192 | Report as abusive
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