4 . How to Get Things Done

Raise Your Organizational Awareness –the Leader’s Sixth Sense

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By Kate Leto

In our product management community, we rightly place a great deal of attention on the people who are going to use our products. We are constantly answering that seemingly basic (yet challenging) question: What problem are we trying to solve for customers? We test our ideas again and again, ensuring the design, functionality and technology meets that crucial — often unspoken — user need.

Absolutely all of this is as it should be.

But sometimes, I think we forget that those who build, design and support these products are people too — all with different personalities, needs and wants — all with their own problems to solve.

Products are built for people by people. Teams of people. Companies of people.

To become a leader at any level in this product world, we need to be able to maneuver the complex human networks and patterns of influence, values, emotions and power that make up our organization’s operating system.

Someone who has the ability to do this can make things happen; they get things done, but perhaps not in the most traditional sense. Instead of making one-dimensional decisions based on what the data, KPI or OKR says, they have the ability to integrate intuitive knowledge of how the organization thinks and feels into the decision at hand.

It does not matter their role or place in a hierarchy — they could be an executive, they could be a mid-level manager or an entry level teammate. It is not the title that matters.

It is their ability to sense the unwritten tone, tide, and climate of an organization. Some call this mastering “social flow”, others call it “political awareness.” For the purpose of this article, I am going to explore it as an Emotional Intelligence competency called “Organizational Awareness.”

Kate Leto - 1 - Speaking at a Conference

Organizational Awareness means having the ability to read a group’s emotional currents and power relationships, and identify influencers, networks and dynamics within the organization.

Organizational Awareness in Action

Someone with high Organizational Awareness can:

  • Make more informed decisions based on tangible and intangible data. They know what the appetite for a decision is, who needs to be influenced, why, and how.

  • Develop a clear strategy to getting things done because they know the internal (and external) landscapes. They can identify the right person or team for the right job at the right time.

  • Communicate in a way that resonates. They know the unwritten language and tone of their organization.

  • Build a coalition to get things done. They have the ability to motivate others to work towards a shared goal.

If you are in the midst of a transformation or change program you also want people with high organizational awareness on your team.

According to a University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management study, the people who make the greatest contribution to change are those who can read and maneuver informal networks — a skill that is not necessarily correlated with position in a company’s hierarchy.

The Radar Effect

A favorite, albeit fictional, example of someone who embodies Organizational Awareness is Walter “Radar” O’Reilly from the TV show M*A*S*H.

For those not familiar with the show, Walter (“Radar”) was a young corporal and clerk for the M*A*S*H hospital. Typically, someone in that role would be the low person on the totem pole, simply doing what they were told.

Kate Leto - Walter 2 - Radar O Reilly from the TV show MASH

Radar was different. He had an amazing ability to get things done:

  • He was able to maneuver the human networks of the military to get supplies, Jeeps, passes, medicines — you name it.

  • He knew how to work the unwritten, unmapped human system to get the unit whatever it needed.

  • He sensed a problem and had a solution before anyone else in the camp even had a clue it existed (thus the name “Radar”).

He was a perfect example of how Goleman describes Organizational Awareness in Leadership that Gets Results: “The ability to read the currents of organizational life, build decision networks and navigating politics.”

Building Your Organizational Awareness

As with any Emotional Intelligence competency, you can build Organizational Awareness with practice and commitment. Here are a few ways to get going:

1.  Put those empathy tools to work on your internal audiences

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we spend a lot of time building up empathy for our customers.

  • We want to know what moves them.
  • We try to discover what will captivate them so much that they may change a behavior or try something completely new.
  • We watch them interact with prototypes.
  • We obsess over their feedback.
  • We try to interpret their needs into a viable product that will make their lives easier.

Imagine if we put those same skills into action with our team and colleagues (or even that department that we do not like so much).

Observe a meeting the same way you would a customer interview:

  • What is the tone of the meeting?
  • What facial expressions and other non-verbal behaviors are being exhibited?
  • Is everyone yawning?
  • Are eyes being rolled?
  • Who is doing most of the talking?
  • Is there a decision maker?
  • Who is really listening?
  • Who holds the power?

There is so much we can learn by making a concerted effort to sit back, watch and listen.

It is not easy but try it a few times and you will come away with a different understanding of the way your team and colleagues work, and how you can make a difference.

2.  Step away from your laptop. Put down the phone.

In many ways our laptops and smartphones have become our best friends. They come with us to meetings (great distraction from participating or observing), they are our focus when walking between meetings (perfect time to send a quick email or at least act like we are), and if you are like me, they are even a constant companion during lunch (the food stains are so embarrassing).

No wonder we struggle building awareness at work — we are glued to our screens!

To counteract the power of the digital device, authors of the book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves, recommend an exercise called “15 minute tours.”

Commit to spending a few minutes a day walking around the office to get back in touch with what is happening around you (Oh, and please put the device down when you do this!). Take a real look around:

  • What is the vibe of the office?
  • When do people move around?
  • What do people’s workspaces look like?
  • How do people react when they see you walking around?

There is a great, complex network of people, emotion, influence, and power all around us. And doing something as simple as lifting your head up and experiencing your office as a sort of “tourist” can give you a unique perspective and a great basis for building organizational awareness.

Practice will not make you perfect…

but it could make you a stronger leader

While these tips may help you to take the first steps in building Organizational Awareness, according to Michele Nevarez (“Essential Skills for Building Organizational Awareness”) the underlying work you are really doing is developing three fundamental competencies of Emotional Intelligence:

  • Self Awareness: The ability to understand the impact of our emotions on ourselves and others.
  • Empathy: The ability to read the same elements in others.
  • Emotional self-control: The ability to shift our behavior to fit situations.

It might not be easy and it might not be fast. But making progress in each of these essential areas helps us grow into the leaders our current evolving, complex organizations need to survive and thrive.

Kate Leto - 3 3 - Sign Saying Beware of Skidding

Think You Are Self-Aware?

Take Another Look

According to Eunich’s research, 95% of people think they’re self-aware, but the real number is closer to 10% to 15%. In another study of 17,000 people worldwide by the Hay Group Research, 19% of women executives and 4% men interviewed displayed self-awareness. No matter how you slice it, we all could use some focus on building that self-awareness muscle.

Thankfully, as with all of the competencies of EQ, you can do just that. But, it is going to take time and commitment.

Here’s three ways that you can start :-

1.  Understand Your Core Values

Unless we understand our own values, we are not going to be able to make decisions in our best interests.

As part of my coaching practice, I often work with clients on values to build self-awareness around who that person is, what is important to them, what is immovable, and how they are living that value every day.

Recently I worked with a product manager who was in a very dry, technical position in an aggressive organisational culture that he was very unhappy in. He had tried just about everything to make the job and the company right for him – tried to improve his stakeholder management skills, experimented with team rituals and ceremonies and much more – but nothing was working.

In one session we did a values exercise to better identify his key values (five or six values that resonate with fundamental, core beliefs). He selected creativity as a key value, but was working in a very dry, technical position in an aggressive organisation that restricted creativity.

He realized that the tension that existed between his need for creativity and his company’s culture was making him stressed, frustrated, and just plain fed up.

As a result, he became more confident and clear about what he needed from a working culture and has since moved on to a new product role that embraces creativity.

2.  Identify Your Blind Spots Through Continual Feedback

According to Robert Bruce Shaw, author of “Leadership Blindspots: How Successful Leaders Identify and Overcome the Weaknesses That Matter,” a blind spot is an nrecognized weakness or threat that can undermine your success.

Uncovering and addressing them is a huge opportunity for self-awareness.

One of the best ways to beat your blind spots is to ask for honest feedback. I know, it is something we talk about all the time – the importance of feedback, how to give and receive it, the fact that (unlike Christmas presents) it should not be given just once a year at performance reviews.

Be aware that we tend to accept feedback that is aligned with our view of self, and reject feedback that does not match our view of reality.

Constructive feedback is based on four components:

  • Ask the right people
  • Ask the right questions
  • Interpret the answers properly
  • Accept the responses as accurate

3.  Have Regular Check-ins with Yourself

We all have crazy, busy days and can easily lose track of ourselves in the ongoing cycle of commute, work, home, repeat.

In my own efforts to break this cycle, and grow my own self-awareness, I have found that simply taking a few minutes a day to check in with myself can be a huge benefit.

Be it mid commute on the tube or bus, in a conference room before a meeting, walking down the street, drinking a cup of coffee, or even washing dishes – I find an opportunity to clear my mind, just focus on my breath and check in on how I am feeling, what I am worried about, or maybe how I would like to handle an upcoming meeting.

In some ways, it is often a mini-moving meditation that helps me retain my focus and get a bit more grounded.

Find what works for you. For some, it might be running, going to a yoga class, or simply walking around the block. For others that might be journaling, going to art museums, or meditation. Find what’s right for you.

Because at the end of the day it all comes from you. You do the hard work. But that intention can take you – your family, team, and even organisation – to a far better place.


In order to build your Organizational Awareness:

    • Put empathy tools to work on your internal audiences
    • Step away from your laptop.
    • Put down the phone.
    • Understand your core values
    • Identify your blind spots through continual feedback
    • Have regular check-ins with yourself
    • Practice –it could make you a stronger leader.

I am Kate Leto and these are my agile-thoughts

2021 © London, England, UNITED KINGDOM by Kate Leto

Kate Leto - Headshot - agile-thoughts author

Kate has had a front-row seat to the evolving ways products are discovered, defined, built, and delivered. That’s the result of spending over 25 years around product management, organizational design and cultural transformations.

As a consultant, coach and advisor, she helps organizations create authentic, high-performing cultures, teams and products.

Avid world traveler. Student of yoga. Writer –”Hiring Product Managers: Using Product EQ to go beyond culture and skills” is her first book. As a new citizen of the United Kingdom, Kate is learning to enjoy the national drink, a cup of tea (milk and one sugar).

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