We work in a world where being effective as a global business is essential. However, despite this, there is no single proven programme or discipline which provides leaders with the capabilities and competencies they need to succeed. If this is the case, then how can you become personally and organisationally effective in a modern leadership role?
Our research of more than 10,000 executives working in over 1000 organisations around the world suggests that the most effective global leaders are almost mechanically adept at moving between different contexts, cultures and characters.
We call this process ‘zoom’. Think of the zoom lens on a camera. Like a skilful photographer, the best leaders move from the big picture down to the smallest details, switching perspective many times within the same conversation or meeting.
The ability to zoom in and out in a measured and skilful way is one of the most important characteristics that singles out exceptional chairmen or chairwomen and chief executive officers (CEOs). In many cases, they use zoom to successfully probe and uncover issues lying just beneath the surface that need to be resolved, separating personalities, policies and cultural nuances from a business context.
In this way, the most effective chairman or CEO is able to tease out the real issues and resolve key problems in order to make things happen. They do this with a view to three distinct territories: (i) the characters they are dealing with; (ii) the context of the meeting; and (iii) the culture in which they are operating.
Each of these ranges from big picture down to the granular level. Take the ‘character’ domain, for example. A CEO might look around the boardroom table and see the bigger picture of the characters there, viewing them by their job title: chief financial officer (CFO), chief technology officer (CTO) for Europe or global human resources (HR) director, for example. But, when required, they can also zoom in to see them as individuals, with individual human characteristics and idiosyncratic behaviours.
How does this work in practice? In contemplating a CTO’s negative response to a proposal, for instance, the CEO zooms in on his or her character. The CEO will remember that the individual, for example, was overlooked for promotion last year and is still sore about it. This knowledge may allow the CEO to unlock the CTO’s response to persuade him or her to support the idea on the table, perhaps with a gentle reminder that the project will create a new role of global CTO that he or she would be well qualified to fill.
Surprisingly, this ability to zoom in and out is not as common as might be imagined. Many highly competent leaders we have studied have a significant weakness or blind spot in this area.
In our recent submission of evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee inquiry into ‘Strategic Leadership in the Civil Service’ it emerged that civil servants have a far greater capacity to zoom in and out than ministers.
The majority of ministers tend to stay either at the broader, bigger picture level, or for large part find it difficult to accept an alternative perspective after having analysed the details when zooming in.
Ministers tend to be wedded to their viewpoint and find it difficult to cope with challenge when zooming in and find themselves confronted with a different perspective based on an alternative compilation of details.
Only two secretaries of state emerged from our study as being realistically capable of zooming in and out, accurately drawing on the inputs of others, including civil servants, and emerging with a way forward and of working in a manner that others could trust.
Referring to the prime minister’s capabilities in this area, one civil servant commented: “Theresa May makes a far better permanent secretary than minister because of her capacity to systematically work through details to reach a meaningful conclusion.
This being the case, the PM emerged as a competent example of someone who is fully capable of zooming in and out.
Her predicament is that she is constantly firefighting politically sensitive situations in her cabinet, as well as a large section of her party who undermine her and are not aligned with her view.
Our research suggests that most leaders have a default or preferred setting. They either lean toward the zoomed out position and are often characterised as big picture thinkers, or they like to zoom in, and are characterised as dealers in detail. They are capable of zooming in and out on occasions, but do not do so automatically.
However, there is a third group of executives with a very different style. These leaders are highly adept at zooming in and out during the course of a meeting – or any other situation where they exercise their leadership.
These individuals are far more effective at getting their desired outcomes from meetings and other management situations. They make excellent chairmen and chairwomen. They are more effective at creating buy-in and identifying and fixing problems before they become a block on organisational effectiveness. In short: they reap the profits of zoom.
Using the zoom framework, there are three critical domains that explain how effective leaders plot pathways through difficult issues: (i) zooming in and out of context – from big pictures to budgets, or strategy to execution; (ii) zooming in and out of cultures – regional or national culture to departmental culture; and (iii) zooming in and out of characters – job title to individual personality.
The ability to zoom in and out of different cultures, contexts and characters is key to the effectiveness of global leaders. Culture and character are typically the doorways to context. Leaders neglect these factors at their peril.
Top tips on how to improve your zoom leadership capabilities
First, be clear on the goals you want to achieve and on the steps needed to get there.
Second, design a well-constructed and carefully thought through case covering why these goals are necessary, and based on accurate details confirming the value and competitive advantage that will be achieved.
Third, identify those who are not aligned with your viewpoint, the compelling logic and nature of their position, and its potential impact.
Fourth, identify the pathways needed to navigate and achieve engagement across misalignments.
Fifth, accurately capture culture and character to emotionally engage when the arguments themselves are far apart. Be prepared to continually zoom in and out of culture, character and detail to challenge and highlight the weaknesses of opposing cases.
Finally, build your own levels of resilience and political skill to reduce misalignments. Continually zooming in can be wearing, so preparedness and fortitude is important in ensuring your argument becomes accepted as the correct way forward.
This opinion first appeared in ‘Financier Worldwide‘ magazine.
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