The word “zoom” is in our daily vocabulary these days as many of us are working remotely and conducting business through the popular video conferencing platform. But long before the pandemic, leaders have been learning how to zoom in order to succeed in business. By zooming in and out, I’m referring to the abilities to drill down into the details (zooming in) and focus on the big picture (zooming out).  

 Work the Zoom Button Both Ways 

 A good leader is able to do both by switching their perspectives in order to get a complete and accurate analysis of a situation. We talk a lot about the lenses from which we view the world in my executive coaching sessions with clients. Leaders who are able to switch lenses to get different perspectives are able to dive into the details when necessary but also maintain a broad lens and approach.  

Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote about zooming in and out for the Harvard Business Review back in 2011. She discussed the different perspectives – bird’s eye versus worm’s eye – and how they should be vantage points, not fixed positions. She developed a framework to develop capabilities for zooming to all levels which we’ll explore.   

Understanding Zooming In  

Leaders who zoom in:  

  • Look for immediate benefits; 
  • Make ad hoc decisions; 
  • Favor one-on-one conversations over group meetings;  
  • Address details by doing whatever occurs to them; 
  • Look for quick fixes rather than seeking underlying causes, alternatives, or long-term solutions; and  
  • Prefer to contact someone they know rather than search widely for expertise.

Zooming in is helpful because it can help bring details into focus. However, those details can lack context and lead managers to overlook important issues.   

Understanding Zooming Out  

Leaders who zoom out:  

  • Don’t see emerging threats and opportunities; 
  • Don’t recognize competing theories that are better able to explain new developments; 
  • Neglect to notice the moment for action on one promising path; 
  • Fail to jump onto a side road to get around the traffic on an established path; 
  • Dismiss novel situations as too insignificant to merit attention; and 
  • Lose the sense that the big picture might be contingent on a set of circumstances that may evolve.

Zooming out is helpful because it allows leaders to see patterns rather than individual incidents. That strategy allows for mapping the territory before any action is taken. It’s appropriate for top leaders, but those executives also need to stay close enough to the situation to see emerging threats and opportunities.   

The Importance of Zooming Both Ways  

A failure to zoom in either direction can be problematic. But is it possible to balance the zoom-in and zoom-out perspectives?   

Zooming helps leaders respond to events before they become crises. In fact, a balanced perspective is absolutely necessary to prevent crises. We’ve seen a lot of that this year as businesses have been faced with an economic downturn we’ve not seen before due to the Coronavirus crisis. A leader who is able to zoom both ways can zoom in to identify problems while at the same time, zoom out to look for patterns, opportunities and causes which will help them develop policies and procedures to prevent the issues from recurring. A leader who can individually zoom will help a company zoom as a whole.   

Even thinking about how the word “zoom” is used can encourage different viewpoints.  

  • “Let’s zoom in on that problem.” 
  • “Let’s zoom out to put it in perspective.”
Zooming in Real Life  

When I’m coaching executives, I compare zooming to free diving – you want to go down hard and fast but then come up as soon as possible before you run out of air. In one client’s case, his business had been focused on new customer acquisition for the past six months, but the numbers weren’t improving. Everything that he knew and that had worked for years before no longer did. That’s when it’s necessary for a leader to dive down and develop a new strategy, or pivot, a word we’ve heard often when talking about businesses trying to survive the current pandemic.   

That’s a strategic deep dive, but there are times when leaders also need to do a deep dive interpersonally. If you’ve noticed that something is off with someone on your team – they are missing meetings, their mood seems “off,” their performance is subpar, they are unresponsive, etc. – you need to connect personally with that person to check in and understand their current challenges and help them work through them. That’s as important, if not more important, than the business aspect of zooming, and that’s a true sign of a great leader.     

But perhaps the most common zooming situation I run into with coaching clients is promotion without valuable management skills being taught. People who are great producers and drive results get promoted, perhaps even aggressively. They are used to focusing on the details and now, they may be managing a team for the first time. As they move up the ranks in management, they need to learn to let go of the details which often translates to micromanaging their people. Suddenly, they are now leading a bigger operation and can no longer focus on the details as they have done in the past to reach success.   

Once you get a new leader to develop trust and understand that their job now is to coach their team to a higher level of performance, they can level up their leadership. They will still do the occasional deep dive when they see something is faltering but their mindset shifts from:  

“I know everything, and I must manage every person and situation.”   to   

“I need to have effective conversations with my team so that I have an understanding of what’s going on, but my focus should be identifying the gaps in my team and developing them. I must focus on strategy and alignment at a much bigger picture than I worked at before.”   

A leader who is able to constantly zoom is able to solve issues through their directs. You coach your next-in-command to handle situations that you do not have the time to deal directly with yourself. You delegate. You help your team identify issues and work through how to resolve them. Eventually, you’ll gain an understanding of bigger implications so that when you make a decision, you’ll be able to predict the impact across the entire organization.   

Related: Three Challenges Young Leaders Face  

Learn to Zoom  

If you tend to zoom in, you:  

  • Get overwhelmed by countless details 
  • Take things personally 
  • Trade favors 
  • Make exceptions based on circumstances 
  • Jump on any good-looking offer that arises 
  • Treat every situation as unique

If you tend to zoom out, you:  

  • Dismiss deviations from plans or models as too minor to matter  
  • Veer away from dealing with specific problems in favor of focusing on general theory 
  • Must have a full analysis before proceeding 
  • Stay on the established path 
  • Pursue the mission regardless of human costs 
  • Put everything into a few categories

Learning to zoom both ways begins by asking the right questions. Kanter suggests the use of zoom-based checklists. Here are some sample checklist questions:  

Questions that will help you zoom out: 

  • What is the context? 
  • What matters most? 
  • What larger purpose is being served? 
  • Will the circumstances recur? 
  • Does this fit the goal? 
  • Are there other similar situations? 
  • What groupings make sense?

Questions that will help you zoom in:  

  • Does the deviation challenge the model?  
  • What actions does your theory suggest for this particular problem?  
  • Is there sufficient information to proceed in this instance?  
  • What details matter? 
  • What details make things different? 
  • What are the costs of delay?  
  • Are there side roads or shortcuts? 

In many ways, one cannot zoom out until one zooms in—in to one’s self. Without self-awareness, consciousness of one’s own tendencies will be lacking, and with it, the identification of the lens applied to the challenge at hand. 

That said, one of the most common development needs I see is exactly what Kanter addresses in her article—that the inability to zoom out is far more common than the inability to zoom in. Many promoted executives find themselves suddenly moving from a company perspective to a national or global perspective, from a “now” focus to a “future” focus. Having led for years from the company and now perspective, it is a daunting challenge for many to now additionally view situations from a 30,000-foot global and future perspective. 

Fortunately, executives now have increasing opportunities to develop their leadership abilities. According to Hay Group, an international HR consultancy group, between 25 percent and 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies retain executive coaches to work with their executives. This has increased the awareness and use of the wider zoom lens described by Kanter. 

Here are a few ways to practice broadening the wide lens and to begin cultivating a higher-level, “zoom-out” perspective:   

  • Attend more international industry conferences (happening virtually right now). Listen to the sessions that address big-picture issues. This will foster a more global lens while helping you increase your awareness of the trends and challenges that are predicted by industry leaders. 
  • Subscribe to a wide variety of journals or magazines that deal with high-level issues. These can be from your profession or professions that are closely aligned to yours. Carve out a specific time each weekend to spend a couple of hours keeping up with these publications. Seek to spot trends that may impact your profession or your organization. 
  • Open conversations with larger questions to engage colleagues external to your organization in high-level discussions. This can happen at professional events, conferences, and receptions or at more intimate engagements such as lunch or dinner. Read Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time by Keith Ferrazzi, the bestselling business classic on the power of relationships.  

Investing time and energy in better understanding how and when you need to zoom in versus zoom out is well worth it. Once you master the critical skill of zooming, you’ll be able to maximize your overall impact. If you need help, an executive coach can guide you through this process.  

Learn more about Executive Coaching