Being Here

Making big changes in a business is always difficult. Can managers make it easier by mastering the art of ''presence''?

The pace of work is accelerating. Competitive pressures come from all over the globe; investors grow ever more demanding; cell phones and the Internet keep everyone connected and on alert, 24/7. People are constantly busy and anxious about the future; they have little time to think. No wonder more and more Americans are looking for relief: witness the rising interest in disciplines that promote calm and reflection, such as yoga, meditation, and certain martial arts.

No wonder, too, that more and more people are promoting such practices in the workplace. Increasingly, consultants and executive coaches stress the benefits of slowing down — of turning off anxious, analytic habits of thinking and tuning in to a contemplative, creative frame of mind. But it isn’t easy to slow down. Says Robert Gunn, a founding partner of Accompli, a Princeton, New Jersey–based consultancy: “It’s very hard for a leader or executive to drop into what we call presence — or awareness, being, quiet-mindedness, in the moment, whatever term you want.”

But it’s in that state of presence that a leader’s best qualities come out, adds Gunn. Indeed, his ability to help executives be more “in the moment,” hence open to new insight, is at the core of his business. Gunn’s firm typically helps companies achieve some transformational agenda — a reorganization, for example, or streamlining a function. The ends of an engagement are spelled out, whether it’s cost reduction, increased market share, revenue growth, and so on. But helping clients find the means to those ends is a little more intangible.

“Our assumption is that clients always discover the answer within themselves, as opposed to getting an answer externally,” says Gunn. “This is not to say you don’t need analytic work, and sometimes hiring a strategy firm makes a lot of sense. But the change agenda — where you’re going, why you need to get there, what it is you’re going to do, and how you’re going to do it — those four questions clients have to ask, and answer, for themselves.”

What’s more, Gunn insists that leaders must be willing to change themselves as well. “They have to be the change they want to see in the institution,” he says, echoing Gandhi’s famous admonition: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Sandra Waddock, a professor of management at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, says that practicing mindfulness can produce substantial payoffs. “When leaders begin to understand that leadership is really about being in the moment — about getting people to become aware of their own deepest meaning and what the meaning of the organization is in the world — then you get a very different sense of loyalty, belonging, commitment, and willingness to work hard from people.” Waddock, who recently taught a course called “Leadership and Mindfulness,” says that awareness practices can help leaders cope with the ever-increasing complexity of the decisions they face.

The Proper State of Mind

If all this sounds a little mystical, Gunn’s résumé is reassuringly conventional. During much of the 1980s and 1990s, first at A.T. Kearney and then his own firm, Gunn Partners, he helped Fortune 500 companies improve the efficiency of their finance and other staff functions. An expert on shared services, Gunn once helped CFO conduct its annual cost-management survey.

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