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Be a More Productive Leader with Attention Management

Karen Norheim

Karen Norheim

President and COO at American Crane and Equipment Corporation

Karen Norheim American Crane & Equipment

Multitasking may seem like a hack to get ahead, but it can actually cause you lose focus. Instead, if you learn to manage your mind and switch to single tasking, you can be more productive and make less mistakes.

Quartz Network Executive Correspondent Britt Erler sat down with Karen Norheim, President and COO of American Crane and Equipment Corporation to discuss leadership philosophies and how to develop a highly productive workforce.

Karen offers insight into:

  • Ways to stay motivated
  • Tips on work/life balance
  • How to overcome challenges

Quartz Network: Can you share some context on your current role?

Karen Norheim: I’m President and COO of American Crane and Equipment Corporation. We are a manufacturer of overhead cranes and hoists. I’m actually the second generation coming into the business, I have taken it over from my father. I’ve been with the company for 18 years.

Quartz Network: How do you maintain that motivational energy and continue moving forward?

Karen Norheim: It helps that I love what I do and I believe in our business, our people, and myself. A great way to keep energy is to have fun. I’m a big believer in laughing every day. Keep perspective. Stuff happens, you don’t have to take it personally or take yourself too seriously.

I have a mantra that my husband and I choose to live by. It stems from an incident on the New Jersey shore, where my husband was attacked by seals. The mantra hangs in my kitchen and says, “Today, I will be happier than a bird with a french fry.” Every time I see it, I relive that moment, which was hilarious. I also remember to be intentional about my happiness. Having gratitude and living in the moment, because happiness to me is enjoying life. Life is a journey. We might as well enjoy the ride.

Quartz Network: How do you maintain a healthy work life balance and use this to be successful in your career?

Karen Norheim: You are no good to your people or your company if you’re burnout. So we really have to practice and promote recharging. That means taking care of yourself. Encouraging and disconnecting with time away from work and devices is what helps us to recharge and refresh. It really can bring new perspectives, a creative boost, and even enhanced clarity, which can actually improve your productivity. It seems counterintuitive but taking a pause can actually make you more effective to get things done in a shorter amount of time. Practicing self care is critical, whatever that means to you. You need to find what works and fill your cup. Happiness and passion are infectious.

I came to realize a life changing thing about two years ago. It’s the concept to be your mind’s commander, not its soldier. Beware of multitasking. Research shows that we don’t actually multitask, we switch. Constant switching makes us prone to make mistakes. Instead, if you look to do single tasking where you focus on a focus target, you can be way more effective. You can feel less scattered and distracted. If you encourage that with your workforce, as I do with mine, it helps them to feel less stressed. It can contribute to a feeling of wellbeing at work. Some of us may have noticed this already when we’re able to work at home and not have the interruptions. That’s the sense of what it feels like to be single tasking.

We’re in a time now where instead of time management, it’s attention management. There’s a great author—Maura Thomas is her name—she has a book called Personal Productivity Secrets. She gives practical ways of managing your attention from not having notifications on your phone, or not constantly checking your email. Those are some of the practical things. She has a whole system for this, and I swear by it. It has been key to me being able to be my mind’s commander.

Quartz Network: What has been one of the biggest challenges that you’ve had to overcome?

Karen Norheim: The biggest challenge I feel I faced in my career is taking over leadership of our company from my father. It was a really big deal. I had to become the steward taking our company into the future. This really started happening about four years ago. At the time, we had a good culture. We’ve been successful even in tough times. But I realized that I needed to create a cultural reboot. I needed to solidify the founders legacy that my father created, as well as conveying our family’s commitment and my commitment to the business. So we had to recalibrate, make sure that we knew who we are and where we were going. That developed into grit matters, perseverance, heart, and integrity—that’s our cultural mantra.

It’s been almost three years since we launched our reboot, and the results have exceeded my expectations. That being said, there’s been challenges. We’re not even close to the full potential of what that means. I like to think the work of growing our culture is akin to being a gardener. The work of a gardener is never done. There are cycles, planting, growing, pruning, weeding, sometimes harvesting, and then repeating. Growing your culture and growing your people is a labor of love, and you really have to be committed to it. So overcoming this challenge really came through that reboot, and believing in myself. I learned so much and I have grown myself through our journey.

Quartz Network: What has been the biggest leadership lesson learned in your career?

Karen Norheim: I think it’s to get out of my own way. It kind of goes back to this comfort zone question. I’ve searched out experiences outside of my comfort zone, and tried to practice my own grit and pushing the ball forward. You really have to overcome your fear of failure, and realize that’s part of growth.

By getting comfortable being uncomfortable, that has really opened new doors and amazing opportunities for myself and for our business. You have to challenge yourself. Success comes from putting yourself out there and growth only arrives when we step outside of our comfort zone.

Quartz Network: What do you believe are the most successful qualities of a leader?

Karen Norheim: I was recently listening to a friend of mine, Tony Uphoff. He’s the president of He was on a podcast and they asked him, “What are the characteristics of a great leader?” I think he nailed it so I’m going to share and shamelessly steal his comments because they were so good.

He said, there’s five elements. First, unshakable self-belief. Second, paranoia and self-doubt. So they counteract each other, right? With enough self-belief countered with self-doubt, you get equal sides of healthy ego versus humility, and not taking yourself too seriously.

The third item was impulse control. Then the fourth was, emotional stamina, which I would call grit. Lastly, innate curiosity, which is essential for us to keep having that passion and keep seeing and envisioning what the future can be. I thought that that was a great summary of five absolutely essential characteristics for a leader.

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