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I’ve heard it many times before: “My CEO has a, well let’s say, short span of attention. I need to move quickly, if not I am too late and don’t reach my goal. Or worse, I get to be set aside as being not competent enough. Not strong enough. Not enough impact. Yet I know so much about this topic and I would like to go much deeper into it. I wish I had more time to explain why going left is really that much better of an option than going right. How do I deal with this?”

Let’s start with your boss. (Or with yourself if you happen to be this CEO with a short span of attention. How do you get the best out of your team?)

Canadian research by Microsoft has shown that with increased smartphone usage comes a span of attention that is getting shorter and shorter. We now have a span of attention that is one second shorter than even a goldfish can hold a thought. And that is estimated to be no longer than 9 seconds. The goldfish I mean.

This means you have only 8 seconds to convince your boss.

The same research also concluded that, because of that smartphone, we are getting better at multitasking as well. That means you do not only have no more than 8 seconds, you also need to hold the attention during those 8 seconds.

It is as if you have to successfully land a jumbo jet on an ultra short runway. What to do when there is almost no space to wiggle?


Tip 1: the three sentence rule

Keep into account that CEO’s are often on the road. That same smartphone might happen to be their only real-time connection to what is happening in their organization during the day. So don’t send them an endlessly long email that would even be filling up a whole desktop screen, in stead use the 3-sentence rule: don’t send any email that is longer than 3 sentences. If you find it difficult, you could use your own smartphone to email your boss. This way you are more or less forced to keep it short and clear.

Are you the CEO with the short span of attention? Ask your team to use this 3-sentence rule. Makes it easier for yourself and your team to communicate succinctly and with more focus.


Tip 2: Know when to call

Some people love to make their calls early in the morning. My experience on the other hand learns that a lot of CEO’s do have more peace of mind and time to answer your call after 5 pm. Are you afraid that this might be an inconvenient timing? Let’s say that it is safe to assume that, when your call comes at a bad timing, it won’t get answered. So if you do (get answered), make sure your message is strong and clear. Skip the chitchat and say what you have to say. What do you need and what is the impact on the business. No connection? Ask your CEO for the most appropriate timing to have a short call.

Being the CEO it is interesting to let your people know when they can call you. I worked with a CEO that preferred to be called in the morning between 7 and 8 because that was his daily time in his car. He told me this when we first met. Immediately. Clear and efficient.


Tip 3: Always move forward

If there is anything a CEO dislikes, it is lack of progress. Standing still is going backwards. So don’t focus on the problem, but focus on the solution. What do you need to reach your goal? Shift your focus as an expert from the SWOT to the action plan. For example, if you’re stuck because you lack mandate, don’t talk about all that is going wrong, rather focus on what you could accomplish when you would have enough of it.

A useful tip, especially when your emotion is getting in the way, is to prepare your message as if it was someone else standing in front of this challenge. Apart from your ego, you own ambition, your feeling. What does e.g. “John” need to reach his goal? You’ll see it is much easier to set the focus right and to formulate your message.

Questions or extra tips? Don’t hesitate!

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About the author

Being a certified executive and personal coach, Sofie Varrewaere is associated to the Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching team and owner of the global executive coaching practice As a behavioural expert she has many years of experience working with the top layer of several multinational organizations. Her passions include playing her quarter grand piano and messing around with acrylic paint on large sized linen canvas. When she’s not catching some proverbial Big Fish, you’ll probably find her in her daily boxing class or in the swimming pool. She is luckiest doing what she does best, challenging others and herself to perform at their best