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The Invisible Spotlight

Why managers can’t – and shouldn’t – hide.

Thursday, July 21, 2011
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by Craig Wasserman and Doug Katz

Your employees talk about you every night at dinner. The meal is placed on the table and your employee’s significant other asks the fateful question, “How was work today, dear?” The next words are about you. Sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. Either way, they’re about you.

“It was great today; my boss was out at a conference.” Or “It was really aggravating; our manager was at a conference and left no one in charge of Food & Beverage.” Or “Horrible. the boss was in an ornery mood, and came down on everyone in Finance.” Or “Excellent. I finished that renovation project ahead of schedule, and my manager was all over me with gratitude.”

When you come, where you go, and what you do in between are vitally important to your employees. They’ve been conditioned since childhood to figure out what people in authority want: parents, teachers, clergy, coaches, police officers… and now their manager.

Yet the most frequent mistake managers like you make is to underestimate the influence they exert over their employees’ lives – personal as much as professional. They fail to recognize how carefully they’re bring scrutinized. They’re oblivious to the invisible spotlight.

So much of the management relationship is forged in brief, unscripted moments. Sometimes the moments are dramatic, sometimes fleeting. A passing conversation with an employee, a glance of approval or disapproval, a gesture of encouragement when an employee’s confidence flags – these are the exchanges that can make or break your relationship. You can raise or lower the spirits of an employee, make important things happen or stall, all in a matter of seconds. And yet you might barely notice what you’ve done. This is because you’re on automatic pilot.

Once you pay attention though, you can create these pivotal moments. The trick is to act with awareness and intention.

I was attending the annual management meeting of a large, regional hotel and resort concern. Though sessions like these are indispensable, this one was sure to be a tedious affair with charts, graphs, facts, figures, and lots of words.

The meeting began traditionally enough with the Marketing & Sales vice president introducing the agenda and reviewing the company’s performance. The chief executive officer then addressed the role of these managers to safeguard the company’s reputation as an innovator in the industry offering the ultimate guest experience. At the CEO’s request, I then spoke briefly about some of the practical ways a company’s leadership establishes and maintains an organization-wide commitment to “the ultimate guest experience.”

When I finished, a break was called, and 15 minutes later the throng returned for the second morning session. My seat was next to the CEO’s, which I assumed would be vacant. In large gatherings like this, senior executives tend to leave after playing their ceremonial parts. Much to my surprise, this CEO returned. After lunch, I was surprised again when she reappeared beside me.

By mid-afternoon, the meeting took a familiar turn. The speeches droned, the eyes got heavy, the PowerPoints all looked the same. Like drinking a tall glass of sand. Indispensable yes, but invigorating, not so much. Nonetheless, there the CEO sat, neither text messaging under the table nor doodling mindlessly on her pad.

By the afternoon break, my curiosity got the best of me. “Why are you still here?” I asked. “You could have escaped long ago.”

“You know, just about every day I talk about the importance of what these folks do,” she said. “What message would it send if I left? These people are watching me. They want to know if I mean what I say – if I actually believe their work is vital or just give speeches about how vital it is. Look, there’s no question I’m bored to tears, but I’m here for the rest of the meeting.”

I thought the world of this leader. She refused to use her status to cut corners. She was working hard to camouflage her boredom. She would not risk an impression of duplicity. But most important, she understood that her impact was being made not just at the podium in the real spotlight, but while sitting at her seat in the unseen one.

As a result, dozens of senior staff were assured that their roles were relevant and critical. There is no doubt they were thinking the same thing I was: I can’t believe she’s still here!

It’s said that small minds talk about people; large minds talk about ideas. When it comes to our leaders, we all have small minds. We all talk about them. The great ones know it. They manage the impressions they make with purpose. They know they’re in the invisible spotlight.


This article was adapted from the new book, The Invisible Spotlight: Why Managers Can’t Hide by Craig Wasserman and Doug Katz. The book is available on amazon.com, the invisible spotlight.com, or wassermankatz.com.

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