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Zoom in, zoom out

By Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove

One of the most inspiring leaders we have ever met is Dame Ellen MacArthur. Her work with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is a long way from her exploits when she was one of the world’s greatest sailors.

‘Something that I learnt through sailing was to look at the big picture,’ she told us. ‘When you’re sailing a boat round the world you’re not just looking at the boat speed and the waves around you, you’re looking at what’s coming in two hours, two days, two weeks. You’re looking at how far north or south you want to be, you’re looking at the sea temperature, the depth of the water, the five hundred charts to see what the weather’s doing. To understand where you are in this you need to see the big picture.’

The organizational world with its myriad of differing agendas and priorities represents an enormous change from the certainties – albeit dangerous ones – of racing from A to B in a yacht or sailing around the world in the fastest time. ‘Yes, but it’s just a different racecourse,’ counters MacArthur. ‘The winner of the race is not necessarily the fastest sailor. The winner of the race is someone who is a fast sailor but is also able to keep the boat on track, maintain their energy levels throughout three months, is able to look at and understand the weather, make the decisions, repair the boat, repair themselves. It’s a whole range of skills.’

Ellen MacArthur is a master of many skills, but one of the clearest is one which is central to modern leadership: being able to move from the short term to the long term – constantly. Leaders have to master the art of zooming in and zooming out at the right times.

‘I have to ruthlessly manage my calendar because I am always deep in meetings,’ Novartis’ Joe Jimenez told us:

In any thirty-minute time period there are literally three different meetings that I should be in and I have to pick one. I spend a lot of my time trying to balance between short-term decisions that have to be made and the longer-term strategic decisions that we are making that put the company on a certain course.

I can’t abdicate my role as delivering the results every year and every quarter but, at the same time, I have to be involved in the key decisions that set this big aircraft carrier on a course. That means from a very early stage I have to start shaping those longer-term decisions.’

The long and short terms are powerfully mixed at the fast growing Indian company Infosys. Its leaders appear skilled in zooming in to tackle the nitty-gritty of delivering complex projects and zooming out to look at the broader picture.

‘If you’re really serious about client value then it’s not only about short-term value, it’s about long-term value, you have to understand where would the clients go to over time and how are we prepared,’ says Sanjay Purohit who joined the company in 2000. ‘I am not working for a company, per se, I’m not in a job, I’m actually building something which is of value to our clients, it’s of value to our employees, it’s of value to our shareholders. Way back in 2000, perhaps 2001, I stopped working for Infosys and I started working with Infosys.’

The zooming in and out mantra was also echoed by Vodafone’s Vittorio Colao. ‘I really have two extremes,’ he said:

One is deep on facts, analysis, numbers, reports and all those things. I have a very good memory, so I am able to say to a manager, ‘This is not what you told me in our meeting one year ago when I was here in Turkey: how come?’ Second, I am able to gather quick impressions about what’s happening, what the trends are and how an organization is functioning. I move around a great deal, getting impressions from people and from facts. Seeing me going around in shops, talking to everybody, stopping at coffee machines – my colleagues would think that my style is random, but it’s not random at all.

The art of swooping down into the detail had also been mastered by David Pyott, then CEO of Allergan:

I like to take quick and rather dramatic decisions. I’ve got better at settling back and letting other people come forward with ideas. We’ve all seen despotic organizations where everybody lives in fear of the CEO and nobody does anything until he tells them. We’re not that kind of place. I tend to push things down a lot, but I’ve got really good measurement systems and know what’s going on so I can suddenly descend from 50,000 feet down to about five inches. I think people like that, but some find it frightening.

Research of more than 10,000 executives in over 1,000 organizations throughout the world by Andrew and Nada Kakabadse suggests that the effective global leader is adept – almost mechanically so – at moving in and out of contexts, cultures and characters. They call this zooming in and out. Think of a zoom lens on a camera; it allows the operator to pull back and see the big picture but it also allows them to zoom in on the detail. Like a skillful photographer, the best leaders move from big picture to nitty-gritty detail – switching perspective many times within the same conversation or meeting.

‘Among the hundred of boards we have studied, we have observed that the ability to zoom in and out in a measured and skillful way is one of the characteristics that mark out exceptional leaders – be they chairmen or chief executives,’ the Kakabadses explain. ‘In many cases, they use their zoom lens to probe and uncover the true issues that need to be resolved, separating the personalities from the policies and the 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 problems to make things happen.’

The Kakabadses’ research suggests leaders do this in three distinct domains: the characters they are dealing with; the context of the meeting; and the culture in which they are operating. Each of these domains ranges from big picture level to the highly granular nitty-gritty level. Andrew Kakabadse explains:

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 as their job title: the CFO, CTO for Europe and global HR director. But when required they can also zoom in to see them as individuals – Susan, David and Pablo, with all their human, idiosyncratic ways. How does this work in practice? In contemplating the CTO’s negative response to a proposal, the CEO zooms in on his character. He remembers that David was overlooked for promotion last year and is still sore about it. That knowledge may allow the CEO to unlock David’s response to persuade him 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 would be well qualified to fill.

Surprisingly, too, the ability to zoom in and out is not as common as you might imagine. Many highly competent leaders we have studied have a weakness – or blind spot – in this area.

Andrew and Nada Kakabadse’s research suggests that most leaders have a default or preferred setting. They either lean towards the zoom out position – often characterized as big picture thinkers – or they like to zoom in, and are characterized as the nitty-gritty guys or dealers in detail. They are capable of zooming in and out on occasions, but they do not do so automatically.

But 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 in any other situation where they exercise their leadership. Having observed their behavior 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 organizational effectiveness. In short, they reap the profits of zoom.


Andrew Kakabadse, The Success Formula (Bloomsbury, 2015).

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