In the workplace, up-and-coming leaders can be both inspiring and frustrating. They really, really want to lead. They have solutions to all the company’s problems, but they feel unheard. These individuals want decision-making authority and don’t understand why it isn’t granted to them.
Call me a grumpy Gen Xer, but among these (primarily Millennial) hard chargers, I often see a common denominator: a lack of credibility. They want to “zoom out” to the grand problems of strategy, purpose, and thought leadership. However, they’ve never “zoomed in” to a messy project requiring proficiency, patience, and execution. Advised to “fake it until they make it,” some of them made nothing and kept faking it.
Great leaders zoom in and zoom out—and usually learn to do so in that order. As venture capitalist Bill Gurley is fond of saying, “Good judgment comes from experience that comes from bad judgment.” Most companies don’t want inexperienced employees exercising “bad judgment” on company strategy—meaning would-be leaders must gain that experience mucking around in an uncelebrated swamp of complexity. They must zoom in on something before they zoom out.
If you feel excluded from big strategy decisions at work, you may have a zooming problem. Either you’re too zoomed in or too zoomed out. I’ll discuss what it means to balance these two abilities and how doing so can open new leadership opportunities for you.
ZOOM IN: THE PERSPECTIVE GAINED BY DOING
To zoom in is to dive into the details of a problem; to understand the frustrating particulars; to reconcile the awkward edge cases where fundamental flaws so often hide. Zooming in is the perspective gained by doing something tedious that requires repetition and self-correction. If you’ve attempted to master an instrument, sport, or handicraft, you’ve zoomed in before.
It is fashionable in some circles to believe that leaders should never zoom in, and that those who do have a broken process or flawed management style. I don’t believe that. A refusal to zoom in is often an excuse—masquerading as a principle—to avoid the hard parts of a job. Sometimes, captains must steer the ship. Not always. Not most of the time. Ideally, rarely. But sometimes.
For would-be leaders, zooming in means first doing what you want to manage other people in doing. You must do—the thing—yourself. Who’s going to have more credibility at a logistics warehouse: the manager who drove forklifts and packed boxes as a 20-something? Or the MBA in a suit who learned about warehousing in a Harvard classroom?
To be fair, in upper management, you routinely manage people who do things you cannot do. That’s why companies have multiple C-level executives who, earlier in their careers, zoomed in to marketing, product, finance, data, etc., before zooming out. They recognize and trust expertise when they see it.
ZOOMING OUT: THE PERSPECTIVE GAINED THROUGH LOGICAL IMAGINATION
Zooming out takes what I’ll call logical imagination. Great zoom-outers see the first, secondary, and tertiary effects of business decisions before making them. Thus, they can view business strategy at multiple levels—departmentally, divisionally, business-wide, and market-wide. Zoom-outers think through how business decisions affect their larger community and the entire world.
Zoom-outers are opinionated yet open to new information that can change their opinion. As critical thinkers, they engage in good-faith debate and reason from first principles while avoiding logical fallacies (e.g., slippery slope, correlation versus causation, reasoning by analogy, and appeal to authority). They are comfortable with asking and being asked “Why?” For zoom-outers, being right is far less important than what is right.
By the way, not everyone is meant to zoom out. There are ridiculously talented engineers who none of us have heard about. They don’t want to think about what to build and why—they want to run with someone else’s blueprint, and that’s OK.
BALANCING YOUR ZOOM LENS
Why zoom in first? Why shouldn’t promising up-and-comers skip the tedium and go straight to “high-level” problem-solving and strategy?
My co-founder at Filevine, Jim Blake, says it best: “You don’t even know the right questions to ask until you’re deep into the problem.” Said differently, if you haven’t zoomed in on anything, you might not recognize important patterns or know what to ask when you zoom out.
Again, young people who want a leadership role—but have only demonstrated proficiency in school and job interviews—are not trusted to zoom out and fix the company’s problems. Not yet. Not until they zoom in on something. My advice: demonstrate high proficiency in your current role by addressing a problem that no one else wants to deal with—a problem that is unstructured, misunderstood, and annoying to everyone.
Meanwhile, zoom out in other ways—by reading, blogging, studying, serving on a nonprofit board, or working on a civic issue. Think big, but be ready to exercise patience and cultivate credibility before seeing your vision through. Once you can deliver the one-two punch of zooming in and zooming out, your voice can be heard.
ZOOMING TRULY MATTERS
A failure to zoom in or zoom out isn’t harmless. It isn’t merely a business skill. We don’t necessarily recognize the cost of a zooming problem until it is brutally difficult to solve.
If you want to lead, zoom in first to earn credibility, and zoom out later when your peers welcome it. Whether you launch a company or work for one, you’re likely to thrive in leadership if you can zoom in and zoom out effectively.
Ryan Anderson is the founder & CEO of Filevine, a project management, collaboration, and legal case management tool for lawyers.