Are You a First-Class Noticer?

Accountability Contribution


Key Point: It takes an intentional and mindful process to become a first-class noticer. A vital part of effective leadership is seeing the signs and acting proactively. Warren Bennis, perhaps the definitive first-class noticer, when speaking about leadership, said that the best leaders are “first-class noticers” (a term borrowed from Saul Bellow’s novel The Actual). That means they pay close attention to what is happening around them. They see things that others miss and understand when to dig deeper so that they can make informed decisions about whether action is appropriate. 

When I was the CEO of a mobile technology company, we made the best margins by reselling refurbished gear and providing third party repair on Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) products. The business was so good that we were slow to react to dramatic changes impacting mobile technology and other factors that would rapidly change the business model. Add the 2008 recession to the mix and our company almost went under. It took a Herculean effort from people at all levels to reinvent the business model, save the company and eventually thrive again. In retrospect, we knew the change was inevitable. We saw the signs. We talked about the possibilities. But we were late to act on the insights. Why? 

As noted in his HBR blog, Max Bazerman has spent the past decade studying why some people notice and act on organizational threats and opportunities while others do not… The author goes on to identify three core challenges to being a first-class noticer:

“My research identifies key barriers that can cause even the most upstanding employee to ignore, overlook, or misinterpret important signals. Failure to ‘notice’ and take action can mean losing an important customer, getting edged out of a market, or even going to jail: 

Ambiguity: Important executive decisions rarely require deliberation among options that are clear and unambiguous. Often the data provide only strong hints, but not convincing evidence, that something is amiss…” (In my case, even though the signs were there, we kept making a lot of money doing it the same old way. The change happened in less than six months but the signs were there at least three years in advance).

Motivated blindness: When we have a vested self-interest in a situation, we have difficulty approaching it without bias, no matter how well-calibrated our moral compasses may be…” (In our case the company pioneered the refurbished business… Hard to change something you invented… Ego is a “first-class” noticer killer).

Conflicts of interest: Extensive research shows that our desires influence the way we interpret information, even when we are trying to be objective.” (See “motivated blindness” above). 

Being a first-class noticer applies to your business AND yourself. Often times we know the world is changing around us and the personal value we can offer is under assault. Our skills, competency and personal contribution has to change. We need to reinvent ourselves. But are we first-class noticers? 

Character Moves:

  1. Commit to improving your skills as a first-class noticer for you and your business. In my case I know people need banking, but not necessarily banks. What does that mean to the financial institution I’m part of and me? The Human Resources role is dramatically changing. How does that impact the Chief People Officer role I have? How about your role and industry?
  2. Build in a process and attract people around you to challenge ambiguity, motivated blindness, and any conflict of interest to change you might have. Do it with intention. Find a personal coach to challenge you. If you’re leading a business or group… Intentionally establish a system to test your biases and comfortable assumptions. 
  3. Have a growth mindset that makes reinvention of yourself or business a regular way of life. Notice the signs. Find a way to embrace them rather than avoid them. Try to become a disrupter rather than someone disrupted. Be self-accountable. Be first. Do it now.

First-class noticing in The Triangle, 


Edited and published by Garrett Rubis