As your career progresses up in an organization the most overt change is the expansion of scope. Scope in time, and scope in organizational perspective. What you gain with more scope is an invaluable asset: context. And the most important thing you can do as a leader is to share that context.
An entry level individual contributor has a fairly narrow view of the world. They worry about things that are on their plate today and this week, perhaps this month. Their work largely involves their peers and their manager.
One of the keys to getting promoted to a senior level individual contributor is expanding your scope. You start to pay attention to things that are this week, this month, maybe this year. You expand your sphere to involve people in other teams, perhaps even some interface with the outside world, such as customers or vendors. And you begin to get on the radar screen to leaders above your direct manager.
When you first move into a leadership role, your scope expands again. You start to worry about the scope in time of the entire project and the roadmap for subsequent projects. Your organizational focus is the direct health and wellbeing of your team, and also how to relates to the rest of the organization, perhaps even externally.
As you climb the ladder in your organization, with each promotion your scope expands with respect to both time and the organization. You peer further and further out in to the future, to worry about how various changes in the world effect your plans. Not just a future perspective, this scope also affords many leaders an historical view they can use to inform their decisions.
Scope organizationally also expands with each step up. You start to impact larger and larger portions of the organization, and you need to coordinate across a bigger swath as well. With each step your view up and down expands, often seeing up in the organization equidistant to your rise. Leaders with three levels below them often pay attention to three levels above them.
And your visibility and impact outside the organization grows. You start to be seen as a face for at least some portion of the organization. You have interactions and impact with customers, competitors, the press, the vendors and so on.
When you reach at or near the top, view in time is the lifespan of the organization. You worry as much about things years in the future as you do about today. Organizationally you worry about the whole enterprise, and about its place in the world. You spend at least as much time working outside as you do in, focused more on customers, competitors, and the world at large.
A notable byproduct, as illustrated by the graph, is that as you move up, the tiny details fall from view. You simply can’t afford the time to see every team member, or every minute in your scope. As such, you rely on those below to both handle those details, and to provide you the visibility you may need on occasion.
This progression of scope, both in time and organizationally, is the defining feature of progression up in an organization and provides much of the context for how you can and should view each role.
With this progression of scope comes perhaps the most valuable asset for any leader: context. Your ability — or need actually — to see broadly across the organization and beyond, and to see further into both the future and the past, provides you with a perspective no one else in the organization has. You can make connections, and provide insight that simply aren’t possible further down in the organization.
It was this ability to make connections that so first impressed me when I met Bill Gates. We’d show up at a project review meeting with a vexing problem, trying to choose between options A or B. Seconds after we laid out the problem, he’d quickly snap with “it has to be A, can’t you see that?” Once revealed, it seemed obvious to us all. Bill seemed like a miracle sage who could see the connections and consequences we could not. That was, it appeared at the time, to be his true genius.
In hindsight, however, though he is undeniably a genius, I came to realize that his main asset was the context he had. He saw the whole company — the whole industry, in fact. He had seen the industry from the start and that alone had taught countless lessons. He knew the competition, the press, the market as well as anyone, from dozens of daily conversations with people across the world. And he also had an innate ability to peer into the future with a lens few people have. All-in-all, though yes, a genius adept at connecting the dots, his true advantage was his amazing breadth of scope, and from it a world of context none of us who worked for him ever had.
This is a lesson for all leaders. Your scope grants you perspective. It grants you the ability to see your organization (or at least your part of it) in ways others simply don’t. It grants you a view from the crows nest of time and lets you learn from the past and peer into the future in ways your team cannot.
So it’s up to you to help them see the context.
This is why the essential element of leadership is communication. You have the context to chart a vision for the organization. You see things your team doesn’t see. Yes, that occasionally frustrates you: “can’t you see that?” But this is not their fault. They are not stupid, or lazy, or myopic. They just don’t have your scope, and therefore don’t have your context.
So your job as a leader is to help them see it. No, I don’t mean drag them up to your level all the time. And no you can’t spend your whole day enlightening them. But you need to make sure that when decisions arise, you are there.
It’s your role to provide them with the context to make those decisions on their own. To show them the perspective they don’t see, so that, rather than you simply making the decision, they see it too. And make the decision themselves. The decision you would have made, because you had the larger view.
That’s why, in my recent podcast series on communication, I’ve spent several episodes on how to best relay this perspective to your team. And how check to see if it’s working.
Because it’s your job as a leader to use your scope to provide the context for your team. Leadership really is all about communication. And the best things you can communicate are things no one else can see.