BIG PICTURE LEADERSHIP

Big Picture Leadership can put real substance into your corporate mission statement.  It has two distinct dimensions:  1) a responsibility upon the part of senior leaders to develop and communicate actionable “big picture” goals and objectives throughout your company; and 2) a willingness on the part of each team member to make sure that they understand and contribute to these goals and objectives and provide feedback where adjustments are needed.  Big Picture Leadership can be truly transformative.

The mission mantra of many businesses focuses on delivering superior products and customer service.  Most preach it, but few actually do it.  The usual corporate success formula involves a mix of products or services, offered at the right price, supported by a trained team with the appropriate tools and systems.  Engaging employees to positively embrace their jobs, and deliver great service day-in and day-out, is often a major challenge.  Poor customer service results from staff who simply view their job as a means to “just another paycheck”.   However, organizations that use big picture leadership as a motivational tool to help the team understand that what they do matters, enable the business to move ahead of the competition in actually delivering on customer service promises.

WHAT IS “BIG PICTURE” LEADERSHIP?

Big picture leadership involves creating an easily communicated set of strategic directions, goals and objectives of the organization.  A big picture leadership team requires alignment around a plan and the ability to succinctly and clearly articulate goals that translate throughout an organization thereby impacting what each person does.

Big picture leadership for an organization is two-dimensional.  Not only should senior leaders formulate and articulate the goals, but each team member should understand how what they do contributes to those same goals and objectives.  Leaders need to develop and communicate goals; the entire team needs to be willing to embrace the goals and provide feedback on needed changes and/or progress towards attainment.  Team members shouldn’t be shy about asking for clarity on the goals and how what they do supports the big picture if it’s not readily apparent

I recently participated in delivering a series of change management workshops for a Fortune 50 health care firm with tens of thousands of employees. During the process, I saw major commitment to big picture leadership in a key operational area.  The workshops took directors and senior managers through a 100 day process designed to solve a number of real world business issues that emerged from the senior team’s development of a strategic business framework (SBF).  As part of the broader endeavor, the company also developed a graphic, online linkage that enables any employee to trace how what they do in their daily job links to the SBF.  This division actively promotes the concept at all levels and in all locations. Everyone has an opportunity to understand how they fit into the big picture, and how their contributions are measured – and matter.

BIG PICTURE BENEFITS

Engaged, motivated employees reap benefits for the organization and themselves, sometimes beyond what is expected.  Lower turnover and training costs, higher Net Promoter Scores (NPS), improved revenue and EBITDA are just a few of the benefits when your team is motivated by the big picture.

Developing and communicating the big picture transformed a modest airline into an acknowledged global customer service leader.  The customer service success of Midwest Airlines, a domestic US airline operating out of hubs in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Kansas City, is almost unparalleled in commercial aviation.  The airline ranked among the top few in the world for winning customer service awards.  For much of its life, Midwest offered two-by-two seating and served complimentary meals on china for a coach ticket price.  Winning customer service awards was certainly easier with that type of business model.  However, what many do not know is that even after the airline was compelled, by ever-changing market conditions, to take away free meals and add seats to its planes, Midwest still won more customer service awards than the vast majority of airlines in the world.

Why?  Motivated, engaged employees cared about their company and took pride in delivering excellent service even after many of passenger perks vanished.  Employee engagement and passion continued to win awards.  Midwest learned to communicate with employees and engage them in the big picture.  Over time, the leadership team developed a consistent cadence of communicating corporate, departmental, and individual goals.  Feedback from customers and the team members was constantly solicited.  Adjustments to service delivery were made as needed.  Successes were celebrated, and shortcomings were corrected in a non-threatening manner.  Passengers picked up on the difference in customer service and gave the airline high marks in customer service surveys.

This sounds basic, but consistency in helping employees understand the big picture and their individual roles reaped dividends in a brutally competitive industry.

HOW DO I FIGURE OUT THE BIG PICTURE AND MY PLACE IN IT?

A previous blog addressed big picture leadership responsibilities for a senior team. But how do you as an individual in an organization get your hands around the big picture where you work? How do you determine if what you do makes a difference?

  • Ask questions. Seek answers. Listen well. Don’t be shy about asking how you fit into the big picture and can contribute.  Any worthwhile boss should be thrilled that they have team members asking such questions.
  • Follow the path to where you feel you contribute best and where what you do is affirmed and rewarded. Make the necessary changes in work groups, departments, locations, etc. until you find your place. Find a work environment where you are taught the strategic objectives and your contribution towards them.
  • Seek confirmation that what you do makes a difference. Don’t wait for annual performance reviews.  Ask your boss, colleagues, internal and external customers on a regular basis if what you are doing is on target. Is it making a difference? How can you better measure that contribution?  Monthly or quarterly feedback sessions are best.  This frequency allows for quicker response to changing conditions.
  • Embrace your contribution – do it to the best of your abilities.   Don’t be thrown by the occasional challenge or setback.  Persevere!
  • Extend the blessings – teach others how to be a big picture leader and contribute more.

A BIG PICTURE TALE

Let me close with a personal testimony to the power of Big Picture Leadership. Succinctly put, it turned my career around.

My “dream job”, working in the airline industry, began in the late 1980s. I’m a big picture person who likes to know how all the elements of a company fit together, and how what I do helps.  Unfortunately, the group I initially worked with at the airline didn’t hold the same philosophy. This made for a miserable start to my airline career.

My first assignment was to run endless forecasts of route network profitability on a mainframe computer for a major US airline in their Capacity Planning Department.  This airline invested a huge sum to develop a massive mainframe-based tool that estimated the passengers, revenue, and net income of every flight in their US domestic network.  That was about 2500 flights a day.  The model factored in the impacts of competition, potential passenger demand between two cities, the fares charged on each route, the type of plane flown, the times the flights were scheduled, and the type of flight; i.e. non-stop or connections.  Maintaining the massive input databases and running the model took a sizable team.

My dream job quickly devolved into a rote exercise of inputting data and running endless permutations of possible new schedules.  I was trained enough to become proficient in the mechanics of my trade but without an in-depth understanding as to why the model produced the results it did, and more importantly, how and why the key decision to fly certain flights or routes were made from the analyses.  I did the work but didn’t have much access to the fun part of the job – actually deciding where and when to fly planes to attain the airline’s objectives. Nor were the broader corporate objectives communicated to our team.

The “roteness” compelled me to eventually switch to a different group that planned international routes. This group had a different approach – one that appealed to my desire to understand the bigger picture.  The head of this group wanted us to understand in detail how the forecasts worked, and why they turned out the way they did. This team employed a more manual approach to forecasting that required learning and applying similar logic and processes as the mainframe tool but using spreadsheets, primary research and common sense. Now I understood the “how’s” and “why’s” of the forecasting process.  I was also more engaged in decision-making about which international flights and routes were flown as we had to defend each of the “hand-crafted” forecasts, rather than just hand someone a printout.  The “big picture” of airline network planning finally dawned on me.  I was no longer just a cog in the process. Someone trusted me with a bigger picture.

My enthusiasm for airline network and fleet planning grew.  I participated in a variety of forecasting model enhancements and went on to master these skills, applying them to airlines and airports all over the world.  It became a career changer that took me to C-level positions at various airlines and aviation consulting firms.

Understanding the “big picture” was a total game-changer for my career. May it be the same for yours!