The power of presence: Mastering focus as a leader of a scaleup business
June 11, 2024

The power of presence: Mastering focus as a leader of a scaleup business

Growing your scaleup business requires vision and a belief in the opportunity for a better future. When you first launch your startup, you have to work incredibly hard painting a compelling vision of the future.

We want to excite people about the possibilities.

Imagine if...

Picture the possibility...

Visualise a future where...

As you begin to grow and scale your business to the next level, it is tempting to focus on tomorrow, consider the next stage of growth, your plans for the team, and how you can achieve future goals and aspirations.

With so much time spent looking to the future, the ability to focus on the here and now, be fully present, and be available to support their teams as they grapple with the challenges of scaling is a critical skill that can make or break your scaleup's success.

So, why do so many of us struggle to be fully present? Let's explore what gets in the way and how we can change that.

Why we need to be able to focus and be fully present

To work optimally in any environment, we need to be fully present in what we do.

Being present means we can listen attentively, deeply consider our situation and context, effectively engage with others and fully 'show up' in whatever way we need.

Being present allows leaders to connect authentically with team members, foster a culture of trust and collaboration, and drive meaningful progress towards organisational goals.

Being present enables us to adapt quickly, seize opportunities, and navigate challenges with clarity and resilience.

Being present helps us to achieve a flow state more effectively.

If this is your first time coming across flow, check out our previous article about what flow is and how it can help us do our best work.

The challenges of being present in today's world of work

Maintaining focus and presence in today's fast-paced and constantly connected work environment can be a significant challenge for everyone, scaleup leaders included.

Multiple communication channels...

A 'to-do' list that never gets 'done'...

The constant stream of interruptions and distractions vying for our attention...

The list goes on.

In addition, we feel that we should be able to multitask and juggle multiple responsibilities at once.

Much has been written on the topic of multitasking, but the central message is that multitasking is essentially a fallacy:

"Multitasking is a myth because, in fact, what people are doing is task-switching. This involves very rapidly switching from one task to another, pausing and returning to the previous task. We are quickly shifting our focus and attention from one task to another."
Kate Jones, Evidence Based Education

So, is task-switching that big an issue? Maybe it's just a matter of the language we use, and it's not that big of a problem. Unfortunately, this is pie-in-the-sky thinking. Vast amounts of research point to the issues of "task switch costs", where the brain struggles to switch tasks effectively, impacting performance, accuracy, quality and results. One piece of research discovered that interruptions can result in office workers taking, on average, 25 minutes to return to their original tasks.

In our work with founders and their teams, we often deliver leadership and team development workshops. In many situations, particularly with our international clients, these are delivered virtually, though not always. These issues come up in our in-person sessions, too!

During the pandemic, our team realised participants were struggling to focus and avoid distraction. We started to ask participants a straightforward question right at the beginning of all our workshops:

During Covid, most responses floated between 3 and 5, indicating how distracted people were. As the world of work has settled back towards a more stable version of reality, those numbers have settled back to typically between 5 and 8.

Last week, I ran an in-person workshop with a leadership team. Again, I asked people to self-rate on their level of presence.

"7" shouted one.

"8" from another.

A rather sheepish "5" from the back.

All to be expected.

Then, as the participants were doing one of the quick topic ideations, I wandered around the room and saw this on one of the participant's pads...

A participant makes a note to himself

The message was getting through!

And yet, just 35 minutes later, this leader apologised for having to step out to take a call.

He missed nearly 60% of the workshop.

We see this time and again as we observe our founders and their teams in the workplace: members asking a question while the leader half-listens and scrolls through things on their iPhone...

...people in meetings zoning out because an email has just popped into the inbox...

...leaders trying to do some in-depth work, but struggling to concentrate because they keep getting interrupted.

We must change our work habits to better control our focus and presence. Our work patterns and defaults do not help. Equally, there are individual commitments we can each make that will help.

If we get these right as founders and leaders, we can improve our scaleup success. By role-modelling these ways of working with our teams, we can accelerate our scaleup growth exponentially by enabling everyone to work optimally and thrive.

The practicalities of being present

Despite the challenges, there are practical steps that founders and leaders can take to enhance their focus and presence in the workplace:

  1. Set daily intentions: Start each day with a clear intention of what you want to accomplish and how you want to show up as a leader. Setting intentions helps you focus on your priorities and align your actions with your values and goals.
  2. Practice mindfulness: Build mindfulness practices into your daily routine, such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or mindful walking. These practices help cultivate awareness, reduce stress, and improve concentration, enabling you to be more present in your interactions and decision-making processes.
  3. Limit distractions: Identify and minimise sources of distractions in your work environment, such as email notifications, social media alerts, or noisy surroundings. Create designated times for checking emails and messages to avoid constant interruptions and maintain focus on high-priority tasks.
  4. Prioritise tasks: Use time-blocking techniques to prioritise tasks and allocate dedicated time for focused work without interruptions. Break larger projects into smaller, manageable tasks and tackle them one at a time to maintain momentum and avoid feeling overwhelmed.
  5. Take breaks: Regular breaks throughout your workday will help you recharge and refresh your mind. Step away from your desk, go for a walk, or engage in activities that help you relax and reset. Breaks help prevent burnout, improve productivity, and enhance overall wellbeing.

Productivity and focus hacks to function at your best

In addition to practical steps, several productivity and focus hacks can help scaleup leaders optimise their performance and maintain peak productivity:

  1. The Pomodoro technique: Break your workday into short, focused intervals (typically 25 minutes) followed by brief breaks. This technique helps maintain concentration and productivity by harnessing the power of concentrated bursts of work.
  2. Time blocking: Allocate specific blocks of time for different tasks and activities throughout the day. By batching similar tasks together and minimising context switching, you can optimise your workflow and productivity.
  3. Digital detox: Schedule regular periods to disconnect from digital devices and technology. Set boundaries around when and how you engage with digital tools to reduce distractions and enhance focus.
  4. Single-tasking: Focus on completing one task at a time rather than trying to multitask. Multitasking can lead to decreased productivity, increased errors, and heightened stress levels. Instead, prioritise tasks and give each one your full attention until it's completed.
  5. Limit meetings: Streamline meetings and limit their duration to ensure they are productive and focused. Set clear agendas, establish goals for each meeting, and allocate time for discussion and decision-making. Consider alternatives to traditional meetings, such as asynchronous communication or collaborative tools, to reduce unnecessary interruptions and maximise efficiency.

How to coach teams to focus and be fully present in their work

As leaders, it's not only essential to focus on our own presence but also to coach our teams to be fully present in their work. This enables us to create more opportunities for your team to achieve the state of flow that will support them in achieving greater personal mastery and autonomy.

Here are some strategies for coaching teams to enhance focus and presence:

  1. Set expectations: Clearly communicate expectations around focus and presence in the workplace. Encourage team members to minimise distractions, limit multitasking, and prioritise deep work when tackling complex tasks.
  2. Provide support: Offer resources and support to help team members improve their focus and productivity. Share tips, tools, and techniques for managing distractions, setting priorities, and optimising workflow.
  3. Lead by example: Model the behaviour you want to see in your team by demonstrating focus, presence, and mindfulness in your own work. Your actions speak louder than words, so prioritise presence in your interactions and decision-making processes.
  4. Foster accountability: Hold team members accountable for maintaining focus and presence in their work. Provide regular feedback, celebrate achievements, and address any challenges or barriers hindering their ability to stay present and engaged.
  5. Encourage self-care: Emphasise the importance of self-care and wellbeing in maintaining focus and presence. Encourage team members to prioritise rest, relaxation, and mindfulness practices to recharge their energy and enhance their ability to focus on their work effectively.

Final thoughts

In the fast-paced and demanding world of scaleup businesses, focusing and being fully present are critical skills that distinguish successful leaders.

By mastering presence, founders and leaders can enhance their decision-making abilities, inspire innovation, and cultivate high-performing teams that drive sustainable growth and success.

By prioritising focus, implementing productivity hacks, and coaching teams to be fully present in their work, leaders can create a culture of excellence that propels their organisations to new heights of achievement.

Written by Barry McNeill | Founder and Managing Director of Work Extraordinary

Barry has over 25 years of experience supporting leaders and teams to be more effective in driving business outcomes, such as growth, customer service, and impact. He and his team have helped numerous founders, founding teams, and growing organisations develop new ways of working to achieve scaleup growth, enhanced culture, improved operational effectiveness, and customer impact. You can connect with Barry through his social channels at the top of this page.

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