Big Ear Leadership

On August 15, 1977, something remarkable happened: A strong radio signal was received by Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope. Its source? The constellation Sagittarius. It had all the characteristics of extraterrestrial origin. Astronomer Jerry Ehman looked at the result and wrote the comment Wow! on the computer printout.

Until this very day, the Wow! event remains unexplained, yet it carries a valuable lesson. In a world full of noise, a distinct signal has power to stand apart like a tall giraffe surrounded by tiny field mice. The ability to help your organization separate noise from signal is a key attribute for high- performance leadership. It is the ability to see what others, such as the competition, can’t. In order to do this, you have two options: You can either boost signal, or decrease noise.

Decreasing noise

One of my clients got stuck trying to improve safety performance. Whenever an incident occurred, it was investigated and invariably resulted in adding additional safety rules. It became a ritual, full of symbolic actions, yet signifying little. In time, his safety rulebook grew until it reached a point where only specialists could make sense of the patchwork of rules. And yet, the safety performance of my client did not improve. Courageously, he and his team decided to do something different: They identified ten critical rules and explained, coached and enforced these rules with vigor. This concrete step happened to be the breakthrough to decrease noise and improve safety performance. If you focus on symbolic actions, you simply add to the noise.

To make any change stick, it is important to cut out noise in your own environment first. Ask yourself what is really needed to make a bold, next step. Then solicit the ideas and help from experts in the field, who are practitioners with a track record of outstanding results. Often, the hardest part is to ignore everyone else. The rock star Alice Cooper once told the following story to drive this point home: “If you’re listening to a rock star in order to get your information on who to vote for, you’re a bigger moron than they are. Why are we rock stars? Because we’re morons. We sleep all day, we play music at night and very rarely do we sit around reading the Washington Journal.” There is a lot of wisdom in these words: If you want to have a water leak fixed, listen carefully to your plumber. Ignore him, though, when it comes to advice about your investment portfolio.

Boosting signal

How do you detect leaks in gas pipelines, which are hundreds of miles long? Some decades ago, a group of perceptive oil engineers noticed something interesting: Gas leaks were always accompanied by groups of turkey vultures circling above. What they found was that ethyl mercaptan, the smelly stuff added to natural gas, resembled odors coming from decaying bodies, thus attracting vultures. The engineers had the presence of mind to recognize a key piece of data and put this into action. In the oil industry, vulture-watching has become common practice to find gas leaks in pipelines.

What can we learn from this analogy? A proven way to boost signal and find the things that really matter is to look at your organization and ask yourself: “What shouldn’t work, but is working anyway?” For example, while studying the business of professional speaking, I found that the top earners were, for all I could see, fairly weak in sales. Their language was timid, proposals were mediocre and the closing techniques were non-existent most of the time. Yet, many of them were in the top 10% of income earners. I was puzzled. How was this even possible? What struck me is that they invariably did one thing that was totally different from what everyone else did. They doggedly followed up every speaking engagement with the question: “Which people do you know, who could use my help?” And then, they deliberately collected the names and persistently followed up. They had built a smooth and effective referral engine that became the driver of their success.

Think of what is working very well in your organization, in spite of everything. This is usually a major unrecognized strength. How can you focus and boost this strength to the next level?

Big Ear leadership

There are two big mistakes we can make as leaders. First, our efforts may unwittingly boost noise. As a result, by focusing on ineffective, symbolic actions, we inadvertently cause the organization to lose track of what truly matters. Where do you need to step back and quit your instinctive behavior to add noise? Second, we may reduce signal by focusing on what should make the organization successful, instead of becoming consciously aware of what actually makes an organization successful. When was the last time you actively looked for the Wow! signal by personally asking for customer feedback?

The radio telescope that picked up the Wow! signal in 1976 was called Big Ear, not Big Mouth. Sometimes, the most effective behavior is Big Ear leadership: stop acting and start listening and noticing instead.

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