Ask the everywoman experts: How can I focus more effectively on the big picture as a new senior leader?

Big Picture

Our everywoman experts respond to a reader who who wants to learn how to focus more effectively on the big picture as a new senior leader?


An everywomanNetwork member writes…

I’m in my first senior leadership position, and since stepping up into my new role I have found it difficult to ‘get away’ from the detail, take a ‘step back’ and focus on the bigger picture. No matter how much time I try to carve out for strategic work and creative thinking, I always seem to get dragged back into the operations. How can I get to a place when the day-to-day is just not so all-consuming? I’m not a control freak, and I delegate plenty to my team. I also try to carve out a few meeting-free days every week, but my calendar soon fills with people checking in, team 1-2-1s ( I have a large team) or other team leaders wanting to catch up or checking for info. ‘No’ rarely feels like an option. I struggle to do the ‘deep work’ in the half hour slots I might have between meetings. What am I not seeing here, and how can I move to where I want to be in time to be able to make a difference before my first review?


We often know the things that we should be doing but executing them can be difficult, says executive coach Rasheed Ogunlaru. What we need to do to make these things work is take on our part but also educate others…

Rasheed Ogunlaru

‘When you step into leadership you will be getting to terms with many things, including people management and the power dynamics that interact with that as well as new practicalities in your day-to-day. The most common thing that comes up when I’m coaching new leaders is the issue of influencing, so you’re not alone in finding this transition difficult. None of us are born great strategic thinkers, it is something that is learned. So firstly, identify the times when you’re best at doing that strategic big picture thinking. Given that you’re finding it difficult to put this into place, my tip would be to do it first thing in the morning, and importantly before you open any other emails. Give yourself a set time to do it — you say you find it hard to fit it all into half an hour, but sometimes giving yourself less time can be effective and sharpen your focus if you let it. A simple tip to get you thinking strategically quickly is to use what I call ‘the zoom lens’ — start with the big picture; the context. Think about what’s going on for the organisation, what’s going on for service users, what’s going on for customers, then go down the microscope lens into the smaller details. The second piece to this is to define your availability — let people know when you’re available and when you’re not and be clear and firm with those time windows. For example, ‘I will be available on Wednesday between 2pm and 3pm for ten-minute slots’. And remind people at the beginning too so that it absolutely becomes a real 10 minutes. You can also announce in the team meeting how you’re going to be working moving forward, again underlining when you’re going to be available if they need your support. And educate people what sorts of things you can and can’t be disturbed with in these times too. What you need to learn is that no is an option — and that ‘something else’ can also be an option. Another powerful thing to say when people make requests: ‘I can’t do X, Y and Z. What I can do is ABC’ — and in this way, you are not explicitly saying ‘no’, but keeping space for yourself.’

Rasheed Ogunlaru is a leadership coach, founder of The Coaching Pod and Life & Business Coach partner to the British Library Business & Intellectual Property Centre.


Ultimately, this is not so much about a time shift, but a mindset shift, says leadership facilitator and everywoman’s associate trainer Pippa Isbell.

Pippa Isbell

‘You say that no matter how much time you try to carve up for strategic work and creative thinking you always get dragged back into the operations, and it’s worth getting to the bottom of why. Research shows that people can get dragged back into the detail because that’s their comfort zone. There’s a good technique called the Toyota Five Whys, which involves asking at least five why’s to every statement; so if you’re saying you get dragged back into the operations…then why? Perhaps there’s nobody else who can do it. Why? Nobody has been trained. Why? We haven’t set it up. Why? Because we never quite got around to it. Why? Because I can do it myself more quickly. And there you are, at the bottom of the problem. Now, that may not be the case for you, but this process can be very revealing. ‘No doesn’t feel like an option,’ looks like a red flag to me and that might well be something to explore in a Five Whys.

Michael Watkins’ leadership book The First 90 Days talks about how many people who are promoted fail because they spend too much time in their comfort zone and not enough time delegating and creating policies or learning different ways of working. He maintains that you’ve got to stop being a specialist and become a generalist and he has several different iterations of that, but they all come back to the same thing which is to ‘let go of the detail and focus on the bigger picture’.  When you’re moving up to senior leadership, you need to be looking at what your new position is going to entail and demand of you and that’s going to be uncomfortable, because you’re out of your comfort zone as you learn. What you should be doing is looking up and out, rather than down — you’ve got people who look down for you now and who should be feeding back up to you. Your job is to be horizon scanning, talking to other people and getting a broad picture about the way things work, so that you can see problems coming down the line which is what leadership is about — as opposed to day-to-day managerial tasks, which are all about business as usual.’

Pippa Isbell is an everywoman associate trainer and director and co-founder of consultancy and coaching company VivePoint.



Put your own needs first, says psychologist Beverley Stone, because by trying to please everyone you end up pleasing no one.

Beverly Stone

‘In Transactional Analysis they talk about people who have a need to please other people. And it seems to me that want to please everyone —  colleagues, other senior leaders and direct reports. I’m fascinated by paradoxes in organisations — and paradoxically by trying to please everyone, you’re not going to make a difference for the next review or please everyone, especially your boss. The other thing I suspect you have is a ‘be strong’ driver, where you think that you can cope with things and ‘everybody else can’t’. So, you nurture others you believe are not as capable as you are — thinking you’ll deal with everything else later, but that isn’t working. There are lessons in stepping up to a more senior role and one of them can be to empower your team to take decisions. What I suggest to many clients is to have a meeting every Monday morning, and get into the habit of saying do you need any information or help from me? And then everybody can tell you what they need and tell each other, because it’s a customer supply chain inside the team as well. Then have a short meeting every Friday where you ask if you helped them and whether they helped each other? If not, why not? If you could do that, you’d find your team members wouldn’t be coming into your office every day with umpteen things because you’ve already pre-empted what they need for the week. On the other hand, some direct reports are quite dependent and need a ‘parent’ in their manager — and where that is the case offer them half an hour, and that is it. You need to put markers down and instead of being the nurturing parent be a little bit more of the ‘critical parent’ — remind them that when they applied for the job you assumed they could do it, they’re paid to do the job and you will be appraising them every six months on how autonomously they can do it. What you’re saying is ‘show me you can do it’ — and ‘I don’t want to see you every day’.


Finally, people often ‘can’t say no’ because they feel they’re not as good as other people and always have to do what they ask them. Your needs are arguably more important than your direct reports as a senior leader for the sake of the business, because you’re trying to look at the strategy and that’s their future. If you can’t help with the strategic plan in your role, then there won’t be a business.’


Beverley Stone is a chartered business psychologist and founder of Group Dynamics International, a consultancy specialising in culture change through leadership, team and organisation development.


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