04 July 2019 by Andrew Kakabadse
Leaders heading up multinational organisations should be able to appreciate the big picture and zoom in on the smallest of details. However, these skills are often few and far between
We all work in a world where performing effectively as a global business is essential. However, despite this, there’s no single proven programme or discipline which provides leaders with the capabilities and competencies they need to succeed.
Our research of more than 10,000 executives working in over 1,000 organisations around the world – titled the ‘The Top Team Research Project’ – suggests that the most effective global leaders are almost mechanically adept at moving between different contexts, cultures and characters.
You might be surprised at how rare these qualities are and, if you’re starting to feel a little concerned about how this might be the case and want to become more personally and organisationally effective in a modern leadership role, then please read on.
In many cases, leaders use their own, in-built ‘zoom lens’ to probe and uncover issues that are just below the surface, but which need to be resolved. To do this they separate personalities from policies and cultural nuances from their business context. By doing so the most effective chairman or CEO is able to tease out the real issues and resolve problems to make things happen.
We call the process of switching ‘zoomability.’ Think of the zoom lens on a camera. Like a professional photographer, the best leaders become able to switch perspective many times within the same conversation or meeting.
Among the hundreds of boards we have studied, the ability to zoom in and out in a measured and skilful way is one of the most important characteristics that mark out exceptional chairmen, chairwomen and chief executives.
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 the 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:
1 The characters they are dealing with
2 The context of the meeting
3 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. An effective CEO might look around the boardroom table and see the bigger picture of the characters there, viewing them by their job title: CFO; CTO for Europe; and global HR director. But when required they can also zoom in to see them as individuals with very individual human characteristics and idiosyncratic behaviours.
How does this work in practice? In contemplating the CTO’s negative response to a proposal, for instance, the CEO zooms in on his character. He remembers that Claire was overlooked for promotion last year and is still unhappy about it.
This knowledge may allow the CEO to unlock Claire’s response to persuade 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 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 the majority of leaders have a default or preferred setting. They either adopt a zoomed-out position, and are characterised as big-picture thinkers, or they zoom-in and repeatedly focus on the details. 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.
Having observed their behaviour over many years, we have found that 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 our zoom framework there are three critical domains that explain how effective leaders plot pathways through difficult issues.
1 Zooming in and out of context - from big pictures to budgets, or strategy to execution
2 Zooming in and out of cultures - regional or national culture to departmental culture
3 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.
1 Be clear on the goals you want to achieve and on the steps needed to get there
2 Design a well-constructed and carefully thought through case covering why these goals are necessary based on accurate details confirming the value and competitive advantage that will be achieved
3 Identify those who are not aligned with your viewpoint, the compelling logic and nature of their position, and its potential impact
4 Identify the pathways needed to navigate and achieve engagement across misalignments
5 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
6 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.
Andrew Kakabadse is Professor of governance and leadership at Henley Business School