It is a term we hear over and over when discussing the work done by leaders – they get everyone on the same page. Marching to the same drummer. They align.
Alignment implies alignment to something, and in large organizations, that is almost invariably something we can call “the big picture.”
Maybe it is possible to lead a cohesive team of people without each of them understanding the big picture of the organization and how they fit into it, but even if theoretically possible, I’ve never seen it done.
So what’s in “the big picture?” The formal strategy of the organization and its interpretation, for sure. Most employees can learn the formal strategy on their own simply by paying attention to presentations and reading printed materials. Interpretation is exactly what it sounds like – interpretation by someone. Often, by peers, subordinates, or even a collection of corporate malcontents.
If you’re lucky enough to have a great boss, that becomes your first, best source of interpretation of the company’s formal strategy.
It doesn’t stop there. The “big picture” also includes the unwritten goals and aspirations that are driving the organization, as well as an understanding of the informal power system that is critical to getting things done. A great boss can make all these things, which are often shrouded in mystery for the average employee, so much clearer.
What not to do
Over the years, I’ve come across four ineffective approaches bosses use to communicate “the big picture” to their subordinates, approaches I’ll call: Benign Neglect, Command and Control, Bits and Pieces, and the Blind Leading the Blind.
With benign neglect, which is certainly the most common of the failed approaches, the boss simply says nothing. This is “the big picture” equivalent of casting a new swimmer out into deep water and letting them fend for themselves.
One of my bosses practiced this approach, and sometimes I got the impression he got his jollies watching me (and others) miscue. I remember one instance where I was nominated for an award, and he offered nothing in terms of advice on how to handle my interviewers. I ended up making a really stupid statement to one of my interviewers, asking how things were going with his new baby while unaware that the child had passed away from post-birth complications. Of course, when I discovered this I was absolutely mortified. When I told my boss the story, he just shrugged his shoulders, clearly not caring. Could he have helped me navigate those interviews? Absolutely. It was his decision to instead withhold knowledge for his own purposes.
Needless to say, I was glad to move onto another boss a few years later.
Command and Control
The classic management approach to alignment is to simply order people to do what you want and not worry about their grasp of the “whys.” This approach is simple, but the effectiveness generally quite poor. Most people work better and more diligently when they know where their efforts are directed. The bottom line is the “whys” matter, and if the boss won’t provide them, he’ll likely end up with lots of wasted effort and group of unhappy subordinates.
I can’t say I’ve ever had a boss that operated this way, although I’ve observed several in action. Most of the Command and Control types I’ve observed were first line supervisors and not likely to ever ascend any higher in the organization as this particularly style tends to be very self-limiting.
Bits and Pieces
Another one of my bosses enjoyed doling out pieces of the big picture a few at a time. I was much further along in my career when I encountered this manager, and so was much less likely to actually allow his games playing to force me into an error. I still found his style to be quite annoying.
I remember one board dinner where he paired me with the most difficult member of the board of directors. Realizing I was in for a difficult meal, I asked for advice on how I should handle myself. His response was to give me a thirty-second, fifty-thousand-foot overview, and suggested I “let him (the board member) do all the talking.”
As it turned out, that wasn’t bad advice, but it was hardly sufficient to help me duck and cover through what became a two hour long sparing match. He’d given me about ten percent of what I needed to handle the situation well. The rest I got from peers or figured out on the fly. The meal was a modest success, but no thanks to my boss, who couldn’t be bothered to take the time to really clue me in on the big picture.
Blind Leading the Blind
Another boss, affable enough, was the perfect example of the blind leading the blind. No matter how good your intentions, you can’t lead people to a better understanding of the big picture when you don’t understand it yourself.
This boss thought he had keen insight when it came to meeting the needs of his superior, and he had no hesitation in offering that insight to any and all of his subordinates.
Except he was wrong. Most of the time. While I enjoyed working for this man, who had a lot of good characteristics, he was practically useless when it came to gaining insight about the company that employed us both. Some managers simply aren’t constructed in a way that allows them to grasp how it all fits together, and this boss was one of them.
My great boss
I remember the first time my great boss gave me a glimpse of the big picture. We were sitting down to lunch, something we did often, and he observed that “…at Company X (name withheld to protect the innocent and the guilty), it is pretty clear that you get yelled at for missing sales targets, but you’ll be fired for missing profit targets.”
It was an observation that would have taken years for me to grasp on my own, and I was impressed that he saw it after only a few months on the job (I had been with the company longer than he had). I was even more impressed that he was willing to pass it along to me.
Over the two years we worked closely together, we spent quite a bit of time talking about multiple aspects of the company’s “the big picture.” During these discussions, I learned how our business strategy was designed to foil a key strength of a particularly difficult-to-dislodge competitor, I grasped what absolutely needed to happen to personally succeed at the company, and I learned about a number of potential pitfalls that could undermine a career – both there and in the corporate world, at large.
What made this boss great was that he could see all of this clearly –some of it coming to him more easily because of his greater experience, as I would figure most of this out on my own today, without issue – but more importantly what made him great in my eyes was that he was willing to share it with me.
Great bosses not only grasp the big picture, but are willing to take the time to share it with their subordinates.
There are four ineffective ways that bosses share the big picture with their subordinates, but only one is truly effective. If your boss prefers to follow one of the ineffective paths, better develop your understanding of the big picture through some other means.
Posts in the Greatest Boss Series (in Chronological Order):
Posts in the “On the Way Out” Series (in Chronological Order):
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Non-Fiction: NAVIGATING CORPORATE POLITICS
To the left is the cover for DELIVERABLES. This novel features a senior manager approached by government officials to spy on his employer, concerned about how a "deal" the company is negotiating might put critical technical secrets into the hands of enemies of the United States. Of course, things are not exactly as it seems....
My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations.