Get far along enough in your career, and you’ll more than likely end up a specialist in something. Whether you’ve mastered systems integrations or become an expert in a certain product category, you’ll have your own focus for which your company relies on you.
That expertise may even have propelled you into senior management–which is another specialty in itself. Whatever your specialization, though, having too narrow a focus on anything can blind you to other important issues. That’s why we have to keep broadening our horizons at every stage in our careers. Here’s how to do it.
From the vantage point of upper management, it can be easy to forget how things look for those on the front lines. But that’s where the bulk of employees’ and customers’ experiences are shaped. If you want to know how things really work, you need to understand it.
Getting access to that perspective isn’t always easy, though. Rightly or wrongly, many employees believe senior managers don’t want to hear their opinions. That assumption can be tough to overcome. Just saying, “I want to hear your opinions, here’s an email address” won’t do the job. To most employees, it will just sound like hollow talk rather than a sincere overture.
Instead, actively seek out employees in all roles and on all levels to talk personally with about their work. Listen to what they have to say, whether it seems relevant or not. Understand what’s happening outside your corner office on a person-to-person level.
To understand what’s behind your company’s successes and failures, you need to have a grasp of the surrounding context. When you’re a specialist in some other, high-level area, that might not come naturally. Two obvious things to always keep in sight are your customers and competitors.
As with your employees’ opinions, you have to be deliberate about seeking out these insights, even if it’s easier to leave the information gathering to others. But none of it will be any use if you don’t look at the information once you have it. Analyze the data. Compare the results. Look at how it matches or challenges your existing assumptions–or the ones you made last quarter, last year, or whenever was the last time you investigated.
Broadening your focus also requires that you look inward and try to understand yourself. Be self-critical. How effective and flexible are you in your current role? Do you have only one approach to solving every problem or a limited repertoire that you fall back on? How does your expertise limit your knowledge in other areas, and how can you fill those gaps?
Understanding yourself is one of the hardest things in the world, because it involves looking for your limitations through the lens of those very limitations. Some of the better self-help books and courses can give you a leg up, and so can reflective techniques like mindfulness. But ultimately, it comes down to learning, thinking, and working hard to become more self-aware. And that takes time–keep at it.
As a leader, getting more self-critical and self-aware is as important for your own sake as it is for your organization’s. The higher your position, the more likely your own shortcomings will become those of the business. Your assumptions and prejudices could stand in the way of better strategy. And in a world where it takes constant improvement to stay ahead, a broad perspective is just as crucial as special expertise.