Tune out the noise
I’ve been obsessed with the Tour de France for years. Thanks to recording devices, I’ve only missed a couple of televised stages since Greg LeMond’s dramatic victory on the Champs-Élysées in 1989 on the final stage.
While driving across Utah once with my wife and kids on vacation, I had a friend call me every 15 minutes with updates of a critical stage (my wife wasn’t pleased). After Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis were disqualified as Tour winners for doping, Greg LeMond is once again the only American to win the Tour, which he did three times.
Stage 1 of this year’s Tour had more than its share of usual crashes, but it also had something I’d never seen before. One of the team buses, which are sent up the course long ahead of the riders, arrived late to the finish area. The organizers had already lowered the finish banner — a large metal structure including cameras to capture the finish — and it ripped into the top of the bus with 200 riders screaming along at 35 miles per hour only a few minutes away!
While the driver hung his head, there was a mad scramble to look for a solution before 25,000 pounds of human muscle raced toward 50,000 pounds of metal. The organizers decided to call the 3-kilometer mark the finish line and radioed the team managers, who would then radio the riders who wear small radios with earbuds.
The 3-kilometer mark, however, was a death trap because it was right around a corner. A sprint at this point would’ve resulted in carnage. Luckily, they were able to deflate the bus tires and drive it slowly off the course. The organizers then quickly rescinded their move of the finish line, sending a message that it would remain in its original location.
Here’s the problem. Some riders drop their earbuds before the finish so they can stay inside their heads without management’s invasive direction and screaming, “Faster, faster, faster!” Those who’d heard the message about the moving line (there’s certainly a metaphor we could make about the problems associated with moving the finish line!) got all amped up, and the frantic behavior caused a crash that took out all the likely stage winners.
A talented but lesser-known sprinter won the stage. He hadn’t heard the messages about the moving finish line, and he remained focused on crossing the correct line.
As managers move up the ranks in organizations, they’re subjected to lots of communication, some critical and some noise. To keep their teams focused, they must get good at figuring out what’s truly important information and what’s just noise. Sometimes you have to turn off the radio and ignore messages, even those from your boss!
As I coach executives, I often ask them to stop and reflect on what they’re hearing — from their organization, their board, their investors, their competitors, the market — and identify critical messages from merely noise. Guess right, and you cross the finish line in the lead. Guess wrong – and you crash.