Attention is the Currency of Leadership

Great leaders optimize how they spend their attention. They are skilled at turning up the heat to get others to focus their attention on the right things at the right times. Attention is the currency of leadership and each person has a fixed amount of attention to spend.

“Leaders have a fixed amount of attention units they can spend in a day, week, or year. Are you spending yours on the right things?” (A mentor of mine, Chris Phillips)

The number of “attention units” (AUs) a person can spend over a period of time is fixed. Let’s use a week as our time period. You have 1000 AUs you can spend in 7 days. Each leader’s amount might be different, but is fixed for each. Attention Units cannot be carried forward. You can’t earn more. The same balance applies to the leader’s personal and work life. Spend yours wisely.

I spent last week at an amazing leadership training offsite. One theme of this training was how to ensure others’ attention is focused on the right things. I’ve had some success becoming a better leader by using the concept of Attention Units to focus my own attention, and to train others to do the same. For example, the idea that “90% of the decisions you make don’t matter” is a powerful mental model you can use to focus your attention on the right problems.

“Attention is the currency of leadership” – Ronald Heifetz

As I’ve contemplated what I learned this week I’ve tried to mesh my former mental model of Attention Units with the far stronger concept that attention is THE currency of leadership, which was introduced to me this week. I sat down this morning to write this post (writing is a great way to create clarity of thought) and an article about Reid Hoffman serendipitously came across my twitter stream. In it, Ben Casnocha wrote:

“Every decision has tradeoffs: when you choose to do one thing it means you choose not do some other thing.” – Ben Casnocha

This is so true! I found this definition of Attention on Wikipedia, which resonated:

“Attention is focused mental engagement on a particular item of information. Items come into our awareness, we attend to a particular item, and then we decide whether to act.” (Davenport & Beck 2001, p. 20)

Leaders need to become masters at the following:

  • Optimizing how they spend their precious personal AUs.
  • Teaching other leaders skills for optimizing how the spend THEIR AUs.
  • Defending the pool of AUs belonging to the people who work for you (being a “shit umbrella”).
  • Creating an atmosphere where groups of people turn their attention towards, and focus their attention on, the right problems at the right times.

Great leaders figure out how to optimize how they spend their attention units. They are skillful at using tools (such as the 5Ps) and mental models (such as only 90% of the decisions you make don’t matter) to do this. Great leaders know how to say no to requests for attention from above and below. Great leaders figure out how and when to turn up the heat to get others to focus their attention on the right things. Leaders succeed and fail based on the things they give attention to.

What tools or skills do you know of for managing your own attention economy? Please share in comments!

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Find Work That Does Not Feel Like Work

The first thing I ask people who are looking for a new job is “What work do you want to do in your ideal job?”

It is interesting how few people answer this question. Almost everybody wants to answer different questions like “What do you want to work on?” or “What kind of work environment are you looking for?”

They respond with answers like “I want to work on a small dynamic team with other smart people” or “I want to build products that millions of consumers will use.” These are great answers; they are just answers to a question I did not ask.

work [wurk] noun

  1. exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something; labor; toil.
  2. something on which exertion or labor is expended; a task or undertaking: The students finished their work in class.
  3. productive or operative activity.

The people who I think will be the most successful can think about and discuss the actual WORK they do in their jobs, day-to-day. Their answers include specific tasks. “Write code”, “respond to emails”, “create user stories”, “analyze data”, “run brainstorming meetings”, and “build relationships” are great examples.

Happiness, I believe, comes from doing work that makes you happy.

When I ask the question “What work do you want to do?” I’m asking a very precise question. I ask it because I believe the biggest indicator of someone being successful in a job is whether they are happy with their job. And happiness, I believe, comes from doing work that makes you happy.

I have been known to spend hours cleaning and polishing the wheel wells of a car. Yes, I get the satisfaction out of the clean result, but, as screwed up as it sounds, I actually love the hard work of the cleaning. I think it is fun. It makes me happy!

I have also been known to spend hours reviewing spreadsheets full of product usage metrics. Finding the key indicators gives me satisfaction, and makes my customers happy, but I find the actual work excruciatingly painful. For me that kind of work is not fun. I do it because it is required.

In my job at Amazon, I am blessed the majority of the work I do is fun for me. Talking face to face with employees about their career is fun. Doing pixel-perfect reviews of our product’s customer experience with the team is fun. Teaching the team that saying no is more powerful than saying yes, is fun. Sitting down with my leads and writing and re-writing a 6-page narrative describing our product is fun. And the list goes on.

I am happy with my job because most of the work I do, even though it is hard, is fun. It is an extra-special bonus that someone is willing to pay me for doing it. Because I’m happy with my job, I’m generally happy.

Think about the work you have done in the past and and create two lists: In one write down the tasks that didn’t feel like work and in the other write the tasks that you toiled over. Then go find a job where the majority of required work is in the first list.

Don’t get me wrong, accomplishing big things can give you confidence and bolster your resume (and change the world). Confidence and a strong resume create opportunities to find jobs where the majority of the required work doesn’t feel like work. Happiness does not comes from what you’ve accomplished. Happiness is not about the past. It is not about the future. It is about the now.

My team is hiring. Maybe the work that needs to get done in revolutionizing local commerce sounds fun to you. If so email me your resume (kindelc (at) amazon.com).

More Posts on managing your career:

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Once I was Afraid

Once I was afraid to ride a bike. Then I did it.

Once I was afraid to program in BASIC. Then I did it.

Once I was afraid of getting married. Then I married Julie.

Once I was afraid of assembly language. Then I did it.

Once I was afraid of printer drivers. Then I mastered them.

Once I was afraid of having kids. Then I had two.

Once I was afraid of network protocols. Then I wrote one.

Once I was afraid to tell my manager he was wrong. Then I did it.

Once I was afraid of changing my own oil. Then I did it.

Once I was afraid of managing people. Then I did it.

Once I was afraid of rebuilding a differential. Then I did it.

Once I was afraid of lambda expressions. Then I wrote some.

Once I was afraid of building my own company. Then I did it.

Once I was afraid of doing upholstery work on a car. Yesterday I did some.

I don’t know how much this applies to others, or how much it’s just part of my own personality, but I keep re-learning the lesson that I really can do anything.

I am not saying I can do everything well; I’m not being conceited. I also know that there are things I either don’t have the physical make up for or require years of study that I don’t have.

My mental model for things I’m afraid of is they are black-boxes. Opaque. It turns out that all it really takes to expose the insides of those boxes is to “give it a try”. I have repeatedly discovered that if I just dive in that black box turns into a set of smaller black boxes that fit together. Rinse and repeat.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve started to remember this. I’m bolder than I used to be and more willing to “just do it”. But I still hesitate.

If I could give my younger-self one piece of advice it would be: “Don’t hesitate. That fear you have is unfounded.”

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

Iconic: Photos of Every Apple Product

Last year Jonathan Zufi reached out to me asking if he could use a quote from my “Why Nobody Can Copy Apple” blog post in a book on Apple he was working on.

I said sure, why not?

I’m glad I did. Jonathan has released the book, Iconic: A Photographic Tribute to Apple Innovation, and sent me a complimentary copy. Fittingly, I received it on the anniversary of Steve Job’s death.

My quote is on page 181.

“Apple’s products are unique not on their feature merits, but because of the way they are conceived, designed, built, sourced, manufactured, shipped, marketed, sold, opened, held, and used. This is integration taken to the extreme and it would be difficult for any company to replicate.

–Charlie Kindel, cek.log”

The photo on page 181 is of the Apple Time Capsule. This is highly ironic given I built a competitive product to Time Capsule at Microsoft (Windows Home Server). I have no idea if Jonathan made this connection, but I think it’s hilarious either way.

The book is just amazing. It is full of great photos of all of Apple’s products, inside and out. It includes forward by Steve Wozniak and Jim Dalrymple and each photo is accompanied by a quote from a smart and famous person (mine excluded).

The quality of the printing is top notch and the book looks great on our coffee table. He sent me the “Classic Edition” which he sells for $75. There’s an insane “Special Edition” that comes in a case that looks like an Apple ][ accessory that’s $300 (!). www.iconicbook.com

If you have ever been an Apple fanatic you’ll really enjoy paging through this book.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.