W hen Tim Ryan became PwC U.S. Chair and Senior Partner, he had decades of relevant experience. He had run a business, worked in the professional services industry, and been prepared by his mentors for the sweeping nature of his new job.
“Even with that, I was woefully underprepared,” he says. “When I got exposure to the broadest elements of the business, I realized this next level of responsibility and leadership was massive.”
That’s a common reaction among first-time CEOs of large organizations. When there’s so much ground to cover, it’s impossible to master every square inch. Only once the shock of the scale of responsibility wears off does something else become clear: The problems different organizations face are often fundamentally the same, and so are the ways to solve them.
As Ryan settled in, he realized that the broad nature of his background was actually a strength. Even if he wasn’t a specialist in a particular area, his experience across a variety of domains had given him something more valuable: a knack for overcoming new challenges. “This gives me comfort as I approach any new challenge or client issue,” he says.
Ryan brings that comfort to the tests that every leader faces, even as the challenges and clients are constantly changing. He finds that this agility makes him a better leader, especially during tough times.
“We consult, we talk, we debate, we don’t rush to conclusions,” he says. “Bringing that experience is huge. Whether you’re dealing with a big transformation, a big proposal, a big client problem, or an external crisis, those things are the same, and you learn that. You can apply those principles very broadly.”
The opposite thinking can exist in some heavily siloed organizations where hyper-specialization is celebrated. In a business environment, firms and individuals can feel pressure to excel in narrow areas of expertise, to become better and better at one thing, and ultimately achieve success by staying in their figurative lanes. Outside of business, the story is largely the same: We divide ourselves into polarized groups, separate news and social media ecosystems, and even competing superhero fandoms.
However, an emerging body of evidence suggests that this mindset can be counterproductive. Rather than pursue narrow mastery, many of us would benefit from adopting a CEO’s holistic and wide-angle approach to leadership and problem solving.
The payoffs can be found everywhere. Researchers tracking athlete development have found that children who play multiple sports reach higher athletic peaks than those who specialize early. In education, students who specialize in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) areas enjoy higher incomes at the start of their careers—but over time, liberal arts students catch up, largely because they are adaptable and possess the problem-solving and critical thinking skills that employers covet. In technological innovation, research has found that inventors working across multiple domains, often merging them, have the biggest impacts.
Similarly, wide thinking in business breaks down leadership silos, encouraging collaboration that produces greater innovation and new opportunities.It causes employees to view leaders as more inspirational and visionary, fostering greater optimism and better performance. It helps create the next generation of leadership, teaching people to find novel solutions to complex problems.
David Fivecoat, an executive coach and corporate leadership consultant, saw all of this firsthand when he was a colonel in the U.S. Army. Soldiers wear color-coded insignias reflecting their specialties: Infantry is blue, armor is yellow, and field artillery is scarlet. But when a soldier becomes a general, the highest rank in the Army, the distinctions are removed. Generals wear black, showcasing the fact they transcend specialties. The Army wants its leaders to exercise command across a wide spectrum, acting as “problem solvers in a variety of different things, not just whatever they grew up in,” Fivecoat says.
Boxed in by what you know
The allure of being a specialist, as well as relying on them, is our cultural tendency to make heroes out of experts. This isn’t necessarily misguided. Experts know their stuff. They command respect in their fields. They have dedicated their professional lives to solving problems in particular areas. Their expertise is valuable: when you need heart surgery, you want the best cardiac surgeon.
Yet when those specialists run into problems they can’t solve, their expertise can be counterproductive. When individuals or organizations are struggling with narrow problems in niche fields, they might be better off turning to someone who knows little to nothing about that field to find a breakthrough solution. The reason? What we know can put us in a conceptual box–and once inside, we only see solutions that can be devised from the box’s contents.
But a better answer might be in a different box. For example, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) once found itself stalled after three years of trying to come up with a suitable test for the durability of synthetic webbing in space. The agency staged a public contest, offering a $20,000 reward to people outside the aerospace industry who could figure out a solution. One of the three winners worked at a medical college and had no formal background in materials science.
This plays out across the business spectrum. “We see it every day,” Ryan says. When it comes to problem solving, there’s a crucial distinction between imagination and reimagination. Reimagination is “encumbered”—Ryan’s term—by the way things are and have been done. In contrast, imagination starts from zero and is likely to be broader, more novel, and produce unexpected results.
Compared to specialists, people who think broadly are less likely to be hampered by preconceived notions, even ones that are hard-earned and otherwise useful. They can bring a fresh set of eyes and ears to conundrums that leave specialists stumped.
Choosing to branch out
So how exactly do you develop a wide range of knowledge and experiences —the kind of background that gives you the ability to think like a CEO?
One way is to work for a company that allows, encourages, and embraces that approach. Under Ryan, PwC is investing $2.4 billion into My+, a tech-enabled people experience centered around individual choice and flexibility for employees, tailor-made to support their development, well-being, purpose, and personal ambitions. My+ empowers employees to build personalized careers by letting them choose the types of assignments they work on, the hours they work, where they work, and the benefits they need. It also includes leadership coaching and skill-building opportunities emphasizing trust-building, active listening, empathy, and upward and peer feedback.
Ryan says PwC offers “upskilling” as a benefit akin to vacation time or health insurance. In addition to helping people develop specific skills, investing in employees can help create broad thinkers. Similarly, good leaders can help create better problem solvers by recognizing when to let people learn how to do things instead of doing it for them. There are times, Ryan says, when he could probably do certain tasks faster or better than others. But he has learned to temper that inclination, because everyone ends up better off when the people who report to him are growing from broad experiences. “My job is to let you go do it,” he says.
Different problems, similar principles
Many of the most effective leaders don’t know every last detail about everything. They become leaders, in part, because they’ve learned to be comfortable in new situations and roles in which they don’t know a lot.
Robin Stanaland, president of RMS and Company, a mergers and acquisition advisory firm, currently runs CEO peer groups composed of leaders working in banking, civil construction, advertising, IT outsourcing, movie theaters, and other industries. The groups gather monthly for what participants jokingly refer to as “business therapy.” Members share their issues, opportunities, and challenges, and the group provides feedback and potential solutions—even though, by design, none of them are experts in each other’s areas.
In the 1990s, Stananland was the CEO of a Houston-based IT firm. She was trying to expand her business into Dallas, and it wasn’t working. When she told other executives about her struggles during a group meeting, they identified the reason she couldn’t gain traction: It wasn’t a problem with her product, as she had feared, but rather that she had moved her top salesman from Houston to Dallas, thrusting him into a startup role that didn’t play to his strengths. The group also told Stanaland that she was too emotionally invested in that decision to fix it.
Stanaland’s problem was the kind that any business could face—and that any CEO could easily solve, with the proper perspective. In the end, problem solving is problem solving. “It’s so beneficial to be open-minded enough to know that you don’t know what you don’t know,”Stanaland says. “And there are other people who actually can solve the problem better because they’re not caught up in your head trash.”
Figuring it out
In his consulting work, Fivecoat, the former Army colonel, often encounters companies where employees only move up on the organization chart–never across. Eventually, they reach the top of their stovepipe, and their leadership potential is unnecessarily limited. “They get to this level where their bosses want them to jump to the C-suite,” he says. “But they don’t have a whole lot of experience other than their narrow silo.”
That runs contrary to Fivecoat’s experience in the Army, where, much like Ryan at PwC, the lessons he learned in one area helped him make better decisions in others–sometimes years down the line. Fivecoat worked in HR as a young lieutenant, but didn’t draw on that experience until decades later, when he was a colonel overseeing the Ranger brigade. He applied his computer science minor from West Point when he translated what his tech guys told him into language more accessible to a broader audience. “Those things build on each other,” he says. “It wasn’t necessarily the exact same experience, but I was able to take that experience and then apply it in different situations.”
Today, Fivecoat teaches that kind of flexibility and adaptability to businesses. He also practices what he preaches. As a solopreneur, he works as his own webmaster, accountant, content creator, scheduler, and travel planner. When he had to build his website – something he had never done before – he attacked the task the same way he devised and executed an Army mission, identifying his key goal before conceiving and completing the steps needed to reach it.
The process worked, just as Fivecoat figured it would. Such is the benefit of thinking like a CEO: The more the problems change, the more capable the person solving them becomes. “You’re so prepared to deal with anything,” Ryan says.