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Sharpen Your Senses, Sharpen Your Edge

“Sharpen Your Senses, Sharpen Your Edge”

Being able to relate outside observations to your business is a powerful leadership tool.

Perceptive business owners notice what others miss by remaining open to experiences and activating all their senses.

Look before you talk

To enhance your powers of observation, start simply. Notice people when you greet them. Take a second or two to look at them before you speak. Soak up what you see in a neutral, but curious, frame of mind.

You may detect an employee’s bloodshot eyes or slouching posture. Or you may spot beads of sweat on a salesperson’s forehead. A potential client might finger a watchband or glance down at the wireless phone clipped to the hip.

These observations in themselves aren’t conclusive. But they can provide hints about how the person feels at that particular moment, which can influence your conversation. For example, you may want to ask a tired-looking employee how many hours she’s worked. If a visitor appears rushed or preoccupied, you might check if this is a good time to talk.

Without careful observation, we tend to see in others what we expect to see. If you bump into a supervisor whom you suspect resents the harsh performance review that you gave him yesterday, you may give off unfriendly vibes. That, in turn, can trigger an antagonistic response.

Mark Juarez, founder of The Happy Co., often anticipates interruptions when he meets with someone at his headquarters in Hayward, Calif. Because he expects a distraction at any minute, such as a ringing cell phone, he may not look at others intently before launching into his point.

"I really notice the difference when I’m traveling," says Juarez, who founded his personal-care-products company in 1992 and expects 300% sales growth this year. "When I’m away from the office, I don’t expect to be distracted as much. So I find myself observing people more closely, and that makes connecting with them easier."

See the big picture

There’s a big difference between hearing and listening: Hearing is passive, while listening requires energy and attentiveness. The same applies to looking and seeing. Just because you have the physical ability to look at things doesn’t mean you’re using that gift to its full potential.

You might think you see 180 degrees when you look ahead. But studies show people only focus on a zone of about 10 degrees. Although you have a wide field of view, only a very narrow area within it stands out.

Sharpen your perception with the following exercises:

Conduct a visual inventory. Truly see your surroundings. Don’t just look around in a cursory manner. Take a few seconds to observe particular people or objects. Compare sizes, textures and colors. Distinguish between what’s moving and what’s not.

Soon you’ll find ideas flashing in your head — from to-do reminders to bona fide brainstorms. The act of concentrating on what you see frees your mind to think at a more expansive level.

Visualize a grid. To heighten your observation, imagine looking through a grid. Mentally divide what you see into four quadrants of upper left, upper right, lower right and lower left. Focus on each segment for a few seconds. Then put the four "subpictures" together and observe the complete image. This exercise helps you capture subtle visual cues that you might otherwise miss.

See without blinders. Expect surprises when you observe the world. Keep a log of your most startling sightings.

Banish preconceived notions that limit your ability to process what you see. For instance, if you expect customers to use your company’s products a certain way, you may not notice when they find new uses.

Consider how hunters find their prey. An inexperienced deer hunter might assume that all bucks graze in open meadows as they do in movies and photos. Yet animals usually camouflage themselves to hide, so seasoned hunters search in the shadows and brush, where it’s hardest to see what’s lurking there.

Writer: Morey Stettner, a management writer and trainer in Portsmouth, N.H., is author of "Skills for New Managers" (McGraw-Hill, 2000) and "The Art of Winning Conversation" (Prentice-Hall, 1995). stettner@attbi.com

CEOs Making it Happen:

Searching for french fries: More than a core product

Craig Schiff When Craig Schiff took his daughter to McDonald’s about a year ago, he noticed that after ordering he was asked, "Do you want any fries with that?" While driving home, Schiff’s thoughts drifted to his company, OutlookSoft Corp.

"I realized we didn’t have any fries to offer," he laughs. "We just sell a core product."

Schiff, co-founder and CEO of the Stamford, Conn.-based technology firm, began thinking of ways to follow McDonald’s lead and expand OutlookSoft’s range of services. Soon he developed external content to sell alongside his core software product, and he expects annual revenues to more than triple to $30 million over the next fiscal year.

Soaking up the best ideas

David Steinberg When David Steinberg visited a friend who is the general manager at Morton’s restaurant in Washington, D.C., Steinberg liked how busboys approached his friend with suggestions. One of them said, "We should drop the bread after people place their order because they’ll order more food."

"That got me thinking of what Colin Powell says — that you want the lowest-level person in your organization to feel comfortable coming up to you with an idea," says Steinberg, founder and CEO of Inphonic Inc., a wireless-solutions provider with 250 employees.

To increase the odds of employees sharing their money-saving ideas with him, Steinberg follows the example set by his stepfather, who founded a successful direct-marketing business: "He fostered friendships with every employee. He taught me you want your employees to say ‘I work with David,’ not ‘I work for David.’ No one introduces me as the boss. I’m their co-worker."

Putting on a stage face

John DiJulius John DiJulius attended management training at the Disney Institute in 1998, but the founder of John Robert’s Hair Studio & Spa learned his biggest lesson outside the classroom.

While lingering in Disney’s back offices, he noticed a 19-year-old woman dressed as Snow White smoking a cigarette and complaining about her boyfriend. He watched her wash her hands, exit through a side door and emerge "on stage" in the amusement park as a transformed person.

"It was amazing how she left her personal life off stage and became enchanting the moment she was among customers," he recalls.

DiJulius, whose Cleveland-based company generated $4 million in sales last year, urges his employees to show the same "on-stage" energy to customers.

To reinforce his customer-first philosophy, DiJulius draws a lesson from "Cheers," the TV sitcom. He coaches employees to "master the Norm factor."

"The minute Norm walks into the Cheers bar, everyone greets him," DiJulius says. "I began to think every one of our customers should feel like Norm — a VIP — even if they only see us twice a year."