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Attention to detail matters

Whether it’s nature or nurture, being a stickler on the minutiae is a quality that benefits employees.

Working on paper for proofreading

“There are two qualities you can’t teach people.” Years ago, I interviewed Soledad O’Brien, the broadcast journalist, about the leadership lessons she had learned from running her own production company, Starfish Media Group. When she started her “two qualities” riff, I leaned in closer, eager to hear her theory. The first? “I don’t think you can teach people to be curious,” she said. And the second? “I’m obsessed with attention to detail. I don’t know that you can teach that—either that triggers you to stay for the next two hours to fix something, or you’re the kind of person who will just let it slide.”

O’Brien might be right: attention to detail can be innate. But it is also something that people need to understand about themselves. If you don’t have it, try to up your game. For better or worse, I am stuck with what I call editor’s brain, and I can’t shut it off. I spot typos on menus. I’ll notice an extra space in a page of text. I’ll see subtle formatting glitches in a PowerPoint slide. I’m not bragging. In fact, sometimes I wish I could shut it off. But I’ve met a lot of leaders over the years who have that same habit of mind, which they’ve put to productive use to set a high standard for the teams they’ve led.

“I see all the problems,” Marc Rosen, CEO of retailer JCPenney, told me. “If my wife and I, say, are walking past our lawn, I’ll notice the single blade of grass that’s turning brown, and I’ll wonder what we need to be doing about the grass. Meanwhile, my wife will say, ‘Doesn’t the lawn look great today?’ There’s beauty in both approaches, but I can’t help but always see that brown piece of grass in the lawn. You’ve got to recognize there’s goodness in that, but sometimes it can be a little exhausting, too.”

And some CEOs are not shy about telling people on their teams that they should be attentive to the little things. “The way you do anything is the way you do everything,” said Kim Perell, a serial entrepreneur in the technology sector. “And if you’re not meticulous on everything you do, that means you’re going to be sloppy somewhere else. I have zero tolerance for that. I’ll even tell people after a meeting if they forgot to the put the page number on a particular slide. I believe everyone’s trying to do a great job, but I think they need the feedback to remind them to be really professional.”

I’m sure there are some people who might read that quote from Perell and think to themselves, “Really? Is that the best use of a CEO’s time?” But I’m on Perell’s side, because of her explanation about why attention to detail matters. It is about being professional. Whether it’s the work produced by you individually, your team, or your company more broadly, those little things all contribute in small ways to your reputation. Sure, there are going to be a lot of people who don’t notice a tiny error, but some colleagues, customers, and clients will, and that’s going to lead to a demerit point.

Whether it’s the work produced by you individually, your team, or your company more broadly, attention to detail contributes in small ways to your reputation.

But what about O’Brien’s theory that caring about details is something that you’re born with? I think people can learn to apply more attention to detail. If you give people enough context about why they should care about the little things, they should make the effort to internalize the lesson. That must be what happens in work environments in which people’s lives are on the line, such as operating rooms and airplane cockpits. But what about in the office?

In the many years I spent as an editor managing teams of reporters, I learned it was a good practice, when I moved into a role, to tell my new colleagues that I didn’t like corrections—the notes reporters add at the end of an online article that explain how an earlier version got some spelling or fact wrong. I didn’t say it in a threatening way. I just shared it as a fact about me. That approach sent a clear signal that I expected people to check their facts before their piece was published.

So, on the nature-or-nurture question, the answer is probably a bit of both—but the advice would be to cultivate a detail-oriented approach if you sense you might not be born with one. As a leader, I think you can also set a tone that makes clear that meticulous professionalism matters. The trick is to give people a reason why they should care, whether it’s because of safety concerns or because, at the very least, people in leadership positions notice these things (and might factor them into performance reviews).

If you are ambitious to move up in your career, it’s a smart move to sweat the details. After all, there’s a decent chance that your boss has “editor’s brain,” and you’ll win points with them by making sure everything is buttoned up. By the way, if anybody reading this column happens to find a typo, my defense will be that I put it there as a test to see if you were paying attention.

Adam Bryant
Adam Bryant is senior managing director of the ExCo Group, a leadership development and executive mentoring firm. His next book, The Leap to Leader: How Ambitious Managers Make the Jump to Leadership, will be published in July 2023 by Harvard Business Review Press.

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