Brokerage Ops the December 2022 issue

View from a Helicopter

To succeed in today’s confusing and complex environment, leaders must see what’s ahead, what’s behind and what surrounds them.
By Elizabeth McDaid Posted on December 1, 2022

I’m trying to find out if you can connect the dots for your organization.

According to Loizos Heracleous, a professor at England’s Warwick Business School, leaders today must be holistic in their thinking. Heracleous says leaders need to “go up and down the ladder of abstraction,” which will enable them to see not only the big picture but also its operational implications (Strategy and Organization, Cambridge Press). Looking at the world this way is known as taking a helicopter view. Wait, don’t groan. Unlike helicopter parents, a helicopter view of your business is a good thing. When leaders use a helicopter view, they can rise above the current business situation and see what’s ahead, what’s behind and what surrounds them.

Why is this important? Unlike in the past, when the biggest worry to an organization was what its competitor was doing, in today’s tumultuous world, leaders are pummeled with unprecedented change coming from all directions. In its white paper “Connecting the Dots,” management consulting company Paradigm Learning identifies the challenges facing today’s leaders. They “are buffeted by geopolitical and global instability, challenged by rapid technological advances and set afloat on a rising tide of information that demands their constant attention.” Other factors to contend with include entirely different business models, morphing customer attitudes, and social and political shifts. While some classic skills and strategies will still be effective, leaders must lead differently to succeed today in this confusing and complex environment.

In his book A Whole New Mind, Dan Pink says that what is in greatest demand today is not analysis but synthesis, the ability to see the big picture and combine disparate parts into a new whole. Leaders are challenged now, more than ever, to make the connection between what is going on in the world around them and how this will impact the inner workings of their business.

Leaders are challenged now, more than ever, to make the connection between what is going on in the world around them and how this will impact the inner workings of their business.

When leaders take the helicopter view, everybody benefits. For senior leaders, the helicopter view allows them to stay at a macro management level, managing the big issues rather than the small ones. It allows them to focus on the big strategic questions that most leaders are not spending enough time on. Questions like:

  • Why the organization exists and what its purpose is
  • What it offers to its customers and how and why this offer delivers value to customers
  • What value this creates for shareholders (the critical outcome metrics by which the organization will be judged)
  • How employees should behave toward clients, stakeholders and each other.

If leaders are not giving their employees the clarity they need on these critical questions, employees will flounder because they don’t know if they are doing what the leaders want. “Making time for such macro questions is not a luxury, it is a necessity. And it is not something that can be delegated or outsourced,” says Elsbeth Johnson, a senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, in her Harvard Business Review article “How Leaders Can Focus on the Big Picture.” Johnson recommends that focusing on these macro questions is not something leaders should do once a year but rather something that becomes part of their weekly routine.

OK, you say, but how do I do it? Johnson has some tips:

Make choices in the negative. Think about the trade-offs for each choice you are making. What will you not be able to do if you do this?

Pretend you have no money. When organizations are strapped for cash, they make very strategic decisions because they have no choice. Leaders make hard choices when their back is against the wall. It is easy to choose everything when times are good, which creates too many priorities and reduces your bandwidth as a leader. Pretend you are low on cash and constrain your desire to do everything.

Talk to the unusual suspects. Talk to folks both inside and outside your organization who are likely to disagree with you, challenge you, or tell you things you don’t know. Being challenged and learning new information may change your answers or will make your answers more robust.

Exist at the macro and micro levels simultaneously. Try to link your macro questions to micro-operational implications. But be careful not to stay in the micro!

Following these suggestions not only makes you a better, more strategic leader, it has tremendous implications for your middle managers as well. When you are clear on the macro questions, the strategic goals you set will be clear, and your middle managers can get on with implementing them. The helicopter view creates context and enables people to feel more connected to your organization and to feel they are a more integral part of the business. Since the mid-level managers are the ones on the front line executing and adjusting the strategy, you want their commitment, enthusiasm and alignment with your strategy. If you clearly articulate your strategy to your managers, they can make it happen and increase its chances for success.

Finally, let us look at the impact of big-picture thinking on employees. High-performance employees want and need to know how they connect and fit into the organization. In “The Importance of Understanding the Business’s Big Picture,” author and management consultant Harris Kern tells the following story to illustrate what can happen when a leader has a helicopter view and shares it with his organization.

A traveler comes across three bricklayers on a scaffold. The traveler asks the first one, “What are you doing?” The first one responds, “I am earning a wage.” He then asks the second bricklayer, “What are you doing?” The second responds, “I am building a wall.” When he asks the third one, the reply he gets is, “I’m building a cathedral.”

Which bricklayer do you want working in your organization?

My closing words to you are perspicuous and sagacious. When you become both and use a helicopter view, you can paint a holistic picture of your organization, which is good for you and those who work for you. This makes everyone more successful.

And no, I’m not going to tell you what they mean. You will have to look them up!

Elizabeth McDaid SVP, Leadership & Management Resources, The Council Read More

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