Out of Sight, Out of Mind

In today’s Voices (Harvard Business Publishing), there is an article by Jeff Kehoe, entitled, When Do You Fire Your Four-Star General? Kehoe summarizes the reasoning behind the recent firing of Gen. David D. McKiernan, formerly the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

Referencing an August 17, 2009 Washington post account, Pentagon Worries Led to Command Change, Kohoe writes, “The article gives a vivid sense of how Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, first worried, and then concluded, that McKiernan was not up to the urgent task at hand—that is, not only quickly turning the tide in the complex and treacherous 21st-century battlefield of Afghanistan, but also, simultaneously and continuously connecting and communicating with the Pentagon and Washington about developments on the ground and responsive strategy.”

While reading this article, a comment made to me by a senior IBM executive immediately came to mind.  “Out of sight, out of mind.”

It was the summer of 1992, and I was the financial executive for a billion dollar profit center of IBM.

Two years earlier I was finishing up a groundbreaking assignment during a pivotal time in IBMs history, reporting to the aforementioned executive (we will call him Hank). As we were preparing to part ways and take on the challenges of our new assignments he said, “I just want you to know that we would have never accomplished so much without your leadership. If you ever need anything from me, just let me know. I owe you.” He had been promoted to a position at corporate headquarters and I was promoted to a CFO position in Philadelphia. Even though I had never before asked for help in that way, his words meant a great deal to me.

Two years later an opportunity to take on a more significant leadership role surfaced. While it would require another relocation, the position was going to be filled by someone with my experience. As luck would have it, Hank was going to be a key influencer in the selection process, so I decided to give him a call.

Hank was glad to hear from me, since we had only talked briefly a couple of times in the last two years. After a bit of chitchat, I asked Hank if, in fact, they were looking at candidates for this open position. Indeed they were, and they were down to the short list. When I asked Hank why my name was not included on the short list his response startled me. He simply stated, “out of sight, out of mind.”  Even though my accomplishments measured up nicely, my name hadn’t come up.

Following the call, which ended graciously, my initial reaction was a feeling of betrayal. What happened to that heartfelt IOU?

Upon further reflection, I realized I had nobody to blame but myself.  While I had accomplished a great deal over those two years, I didn’t bother to keep in touch with those who did not have an immediate role or stake in my endeavors. I was so involved in trying to make a difference that I completely ignored the politics that exists in any organization. It is not enough to do good work. It is imperative to simultaneously and continuously connect with and communicate with your stakeholders.  You must take every opportunity to keep them apprised of your current state, the progress you have made to-date, and your strategies to get to your desired state.  For those of you who like to operate autonomously this can feel confining, and it is time consuming.   Ultimately, we attain our goals only with the help of others who are invested in the outcome.  One of our chief responsibilities as leaders is to stay “top of mind” with those who will help us succeed.  Otherwise we may be reminded that “out of sight” equals “out of mind” at a very critical time.

©Mark P. Loschiavo

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