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George Cope had been CEO of BCE for just under two years when a Report on Business writer visited him in February 2010. The conversation focused on Bell’s turnaround strategy. To illustrate a point, Cope reached into his desk and yanked out a line-by-line expense report for the entire company. “I go through all 121 pages myself,” he told reporter Simon Avery.

When I sat down with Cope this fall, I asked if this attention to detail had persisted. It seemed reasonable to check every line in the midst of a company-wide overhaul, but surely, he had climbed out of the weeds by now. But no. Cope still had the report within reach. “It creates a real culture of financial discipline,” he told me. “I’m going to ask about page 229, line 67. Because I expect [the person responsible] to know exactly why it’s higher than a year ago, or why not.”

Our interview took place on the occasion of Cope’s recognition as one of Canada’s best CEOs by Report on Business magazine. Our reporters and editors selected him as Corporate Citizen of the Year, for his leadership of the Bell Let’s Talk initiative. In total, we chose five CEOs this year who exemplified the best of corporate innovation, strategy and responsibility. And while the honourees come from disparate backgrounds and industries, they all share Cope’s focus on the finer points. Dani Reiss, our Global Visionary of the Year, has built Canada Goose into an international brand by recognizing the subtle shifts needed between cultures. A&W’s Susan Senecal, the New CEO of the Year, spent nearly a decade chasing the right veggie burger for her company. Dax Dasilva of Lightspeed, the Innovator of the Year, has a headquarters filled with screens to keep staff abreast of key statistics in real time. And Calin Rovinescu, recognized as both top strategist and overall CEO of the Year, has demonstrated an ability to tweak and hone his tactics, while always building toward a long-term vision.

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There is, of course, a danger that a CEO can become too focused on small details and lose sight of the big picture. Marissa Mayer, the ill-fated former CEO of Yahoo, notoriously obsessed over the right shade of purple for the company’s logo, even as its core business faltered. A focus on tiny details can also lead to micromanagement, where subordinates feel they have no authority to make decisions, no matter how trivial.

But a truly excellent CEO can use small details to diagnose big problems. Dominic Barton, the former managing director of McKinsey & Co., once wrote successful leaders need to “develop a facility for viewing the world through two lenses: a telescope, to consider opportunities far into the future, and a microscope, to scrutinize challenges of the moment at intense magnification.” The real trick is knowing when to swap one lens for the other.

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