Leaders as problem solvers

Do you know what it takes for a leader to be a problem solver?  Do any of us really know?  Does it take a special set of skills?  Or does it simply take the skills of knowing that a problem is upon us and decisive action is needed to resolve it?  At this time of year, with the Fourth of July holiday upon us, I think of the men and women who recognized the problems existing between the colonies and England.  When you look at them as individuals, nothing of great note stands out.  They were simply men and women faced with a situation that was thrust upon them, perhaps by actions they had taken but thrust on them nonetheless.  Each of them brought a particular skill to the solution which was ultimately implemented.  Acting alone, none of the founding fathers would have been able to accomplish what eventually led to the independence of the American colonies and the form of government which evolved.  But acting in concert, even agreeing to disagree, the leaders of the American Revolution achieved what many thought was impossible – independence from England and a stable, growing new nation.

So what does this have to do with problem solving?  As leaders and managers you have a responsibility to your organization to maintain and increase its success.  But do you have all the skills necessary to do this on your own?  I’m going to hazard a guess that you don’t.  But the wise and confident leader will recognize problem solving skills in others and utilize their abilities to insure the success of the organization.  Problem solving is not always a solo act.  More often than not it is a collaborative effort.  That effort will succeed if you, as the leader, utilize the skills of a professional problem solver to help insure that everyone keeps their focus on the goal.  Don’t forget – any goal can be achieved so long as it truly does not matter who gets the credit.

Are You a Control Freak?

Are you the type of leader who’s in charge – or are you the control freak who drives all your subordinates crazy?

A good leader will create a work environment where subordinates feel that they can trust the leader to have their backs because he or she trusts them to do their work.  Good managers will insure that standards and policies are followed while also encouraging creativity and innovation.  As the leader you are responsible for insuring the success of the organization.  (Let’s not forget Aunt Nellie and the other stockholders.)  How you go about achieving that success will reflect on the organization.  Are you comfortable with being in charge or do you have to control every single detail of virtually every task of the organization?  When someone describes a problem that was resolved, is your first reaction to say something to the effect of, “What you should have done was . . . “ What message did you just give the other person?  (By the way, it’s easy being the Monday morning quarterback.)  When someone shows you a written communication do you immediately start to re-write it?  Do you say something to the effect of, “Well, I suppose you could say it that way but it’s better if you say this…(my way).”

As a leader who’s in charge, when a subordinate describes a problem area and resolution, LISTEN FIRST.  Compliment the effort.  If there were areas of improvement noted, ask how the leadership or management team can work together to implement new approaches to resolving the problem.  End the discussion with another compliment.  It can be something as simple as thanking folks for their hard work and dedication.  If you stop the “I’m in control and everyone had better realize it” nonsense you just may discover how much easier it is to hire and retain quality individuals who are dedicated to the long term success of the organization.  You and your stockholders will be amazed at the success of the organization if you stay in charge.  If you remain the Control Freak, you’re going to become overly familiar with the same old problems and Aunt Nellie will have more than enough ammunition to ruin a lifetime of lunches with you.

What do you mean the problem’s not solved?

          You’ve just returned from a lengthy lunch with Aunt Nellie, who just had to tell you that she didn’t like the fact that her dividend check was smaller last month than the month before and why aren’t you promoting her favorite nephew.  After all it’s only a matter of time before he’s ready to take over the company.  Fortunately, you were blessed with that subtle filter which prevented you from telling her to go ahead and let him take over (it’s been a real bad month and the stockholder meeting coming up is not the sunshine moment you’ve been looking forward to.)  Not five minutes after sitting down and swallowing a handful of antacids with an aspirin chaser, your administrative assistant comes in with the news that the personnel issue in the Widget unit has just reared its ugly head  – AGAIN.  Once more the subtle filter kicks in immediately.  You successfully resist the urge to show your assistant just how fluent you are in swear and cuss.  But you can’t help wondering why the problem has returned.

           One thing to understand when trying to resolve problems is that there may be obstacles which prevent you from accurately identifying the root cause of the problem.  Without that vital information, you tend to implement solutions that are only temporary in nature.   If you truly want to resolve a problem permanently, consider utilizing the services and skills of a problem solving consultant.  That consultant can work to find the root causes of the problems you’re experiencing.  Once the real issues have been correctly identified, the consultant will work with you to develop and implement realistic and practical solutions so the problem won’t keep rearing its ugly head.  Using the skills of the problem solving consultant will go a long way to reducing your stress level, as well as the stress within the entire organization.  Think about it.

Why do I have to keep fixing this same old mess?

If you’re the leader or manager of an organization, you get the nomination to solve the problems because, as a dear friend has said told me, “you’re the head Fred what’s in charge” – and don’t forget Aunt Nellie and her monthly dividend payment.

If you find yourself having to revisit old problems you thought were solved, you need to remember a couple of things.  First, you were promoted or hired for the position because of your abilities and your dedication to insuring the success of the organization, no matter how large or small.  Taking on these responsibilities has to mean something more than getting a key to the executive bathroom.  You’re supposed to have the intelligence and abilities to address whatever problems develop.  Part of your skill set needs to be the ability to recognize when something is outside your ability to handle.  Second, when you find yourself addressing the same old problem time and time again, that’s when you need to acknowledge that intervention by a professional problem solving consultant is needed.  When the same problem continues to rear its ugly head, it may be that you’ve not yet discovered the root cause of the problem.  If that’s the case, no solution you implement will be permanently effective.  But a permanent fix can be developed when you hire a professional problem solving consultant.

Remember our last conversation?  The professional problem solving consultant comes in with only one agenda and that’s to discover the root cause of the problems and develop an effective, permanent solution.  So when problems don’t ever seem to get resolved, consider hiring a problem solving consultant.   It will certainly make your life as the leader/manager a whole lot easier and you can devote more time to listening to Aunt Nellie’s ideas on how to run the business.

Why Should I Hire a Problem Solving Consultant?

Have you ever heard the expression, “…can’t see the forest for the trees…?”  When you’re in the middle of a problem, especially as a leader or manager of an organization, it’s hard for you to see all the sides of the issue and approach the possible solutions from an objective viewpoint.  Unfortunately, you have a horse in the race.  A problem solving consultant doesn’t have those restrictions.  The consultant you hire comes in with a fresh perspective and no preconceived notions.  The professional consultant will do the homework to get a sense of what the issues are and will know after talking with you what the effect is on the bottom line of the organization.  After all, that’s really what’s at the heart of solving problems, isn’t it?  When problems arise that affect the profit margin or bottom line they truly become threats to the organization’s future.  As the leader of the small business, are you really prepared to fire Aunt Nellie’s nephew?  But if a professional consultant lays out the facts and shows the impact upon Aunt Nellie’s dividend payment won’t that make it easier for you to implement the solutions?  The same thing holds true for larger businesses and corporations.  Hard decisions may be needed to protect the dividend payments to stockholders and insure the profitability of the corporation.  Are you prepared to face the firing line when asked who’s responsible for the problems and why do they keep happening?  You will be — if you’ve made use of the skills and talents of  a professional problem solving consultant.

Leadership and Ethics

If you know what you’re doing is wrong but there’s no one to notice or learn of what you’re doing, is there an ethical issue? When it’s put that bluntly, what do you think? Remember the common sense definition of ethics. Ethics is what you do when no one’s watching. You as the supervisor, manager or leader have a moral obligation to your organization and to yourself to always try to do the right thing. If you don’t but you instruct your employees to do so, aren’t you really simply stating that they’re to do as you say, not as you do? Are you truly behaving as a leader?

Ethical conduct these days seems to be in short supply. We’ve all read the headlines and heard the talking heads pontificate about the waste and abuse by federal agencies, state agencies, and private sector organizations. Why does it keep happening? For one thing, what are the consequences? A few folks have resigned their positions or retired. And in “fifteen minutes,” figuratively speaking, no one will remember, the agencies involved will suffer no lasting consequences and the same old mind set continues.

Here’s the big “however.” If your organization relies upon its reputation for honor and integrity, any behavior by any employee which is contrary to those principles will undermine that reputation and ultimately end up hurting the organization. As a member of the leadership team you bear a great responsibility for protecting the good name of your organization and the reputation of each and every employee. With that in mind, how will you respond to the next ethical dilemma you face?

Problem solving and technology

Is there any leader, manager, or supervisor who thinks that it would be lovely to get away from the emails, the computers, the smartphones for just a little while – or have we all become so dependent upon the technology that we can’t think of going even a day without checking the emails, voice messages, computers, etc.?  Can you imagine being the management team of a company or organization that inadvertently let an email out which notified everyone in the organization that they had been fired?  Do you really think another email is going to be the calming oils on troubled waters?

If you’re in a management position and problems develop don’t expect an email to adequately address the problem.  In many cases the problem has its root cause in a communication issue.  A direct, human to human contact will go a long way to keeping the fallout from the problem to a manageable level before resolution can be achieved.  An email might be timely and can provide a great deal of information.  Technology will help provide solutions and perhaps even provide better ways of accomplishing certain tasks.  However good our technology is though, it won’t every replace the importance of letting people know they matter.

How does the impersonal nature of the email convey the importance that people have to your organization?  Taking the time necessary to directly and personally attend to the issue(s) speaks volumes to onlookers as to how valued people are within your company or organization.  Is it always convenient?  Is it always comfortable to go into a meeting where you know people are begging for a confrontation?  No, no, and again no.  But the fact that you think enough of the people to take that time to listen and to try to work together to reach a consensus will be well worth it.  It can build a sense of good will and folks will remember the time and attention you paid to their issues.  When the chips are down and sacrifices in time, money or positions have to be made, folks are going to know that you’ve done everything possible to find a resolution that is to the benefit of all concerned.  When such a resolution isn’t possible, the folks are still going to know that people matter to you.  In the end, that’s really what business is all about – making sure the end consumer and the people providing that service know they have value and worth.

Problem Solving and Communication

Common sense tells us that problem resolution is heavily dependent upon communication.  The communication structure used to address and resolve the problem is important.  Here are a few points you may want to consider.

Leaders will often use a centralized communication structure in order to establish group norms.  This is particularly true for newly formed groups.  Researchers have described centralized communication as either a chain or a “Y” with the leader exerting strict control over which group members get what information.  In contrast, a decentralized communication structure has been described as a circle which gives every individual in the group access to all other group members.

Both centralized and decentralized communication structures are well suited to resolving a specific type of problem.  Centralized communication structures allow the group to spend less time initially on preliminary organization processes and decisions are usually reached quickly.  On the other hand, groups utilizing a decentralized communication structure will often take more time to get organized. Once a group using a decentralized structure gets organized, it can usually work as efficiently as a group in a centralized structure.

Research has shown that there are important differences between centralized and decentralized communication structures.  Within centralized structures, the individual occupying the center position tends to become the leader regardless of whether or not that person has the necessary qualifications.  That individual is in the position of receiving all the communications and has all the information needed to make decisions.  Leadership in decentralized structures, on the contrary, usually is bestowed upon the member with the best qualifications.  Information is shared with the group members so that all the information needed to make the decision is known.

Centralized structured groups have been found to be less flexible than decentralized structured groups and are best suited to solving simple problems, especially when time is of the essence and the quality of the decision is not of prime importance.  Groups utilizing a decentralized communication structure tend to rely upon the expertise of all its members so the quality of their decisions tends to be higher.

Researchers have also found a difference in the group morale between groups using a centralized communication structure and those utilizing a decentralized structure.  Research has shown that a member’s morale is directly related to how valuable that member feels.  The farther from the center point in a centralized structure a member is, the lower the member’s morale.  In contrast, the members of a group using a decentralized structure tend to have the same morale.  The morale in the latter group is dependent more on the nature of the assigned task and its importance, rather than the individual’s position within the group.

Depending upon the urgency of the problem and the need for quality decisions, leaders will need to weigh the pros and cons of both communication structures.  Both have advantages and disadvantages.  Weigh them both and select the style best suited to the particular problem being addressed.


Performance Appraisals for Difficult Employees – Part I

There may be nothing more a supervisor dreads that having to do a performance appraisal for a difficult employee. You can’t stick your head in the sand, that’s for sure.  But there are some key actions you may consider taking to prepare for the meeting.

The most important thing to remember in dealing with any employee, difficult or not, is that as the supervisor you must focus on the issue or the behavior. Be sure that you’ve taken notes during the review period to recall good job performances and problem issues. If meetings were held to discuss the issues, use your notes to discuss performance issues. Those notes should include the date and time of the meeting, who was present and what was discussed.  If memos were sent to the employee addressing a specific issue, have a copy of those memos available during the review meeting.

Call the meeting for a time that will allow both you and the employee to engage in conversation without distractions. If you can’t get away from the telephone or interruptions in your office, move the meeting to a neutral location such as a conference room. The key here is to insure that both you and the employee can devote full attention to the performance appraisal without having an audience.

Provide a copy of the written performance appraisal to the employee in time to allow the employee to review it before the meeting. Remember when writing the review that your focus must be on specific issues or behaviors. For example, if the employee’s job requires the production of reports within a specific time period, make sure you’ve checked the disclosure rate to determine whether the employee has met the standard. Check the submission dates and times and note the number which were on time and the number which were late.

Stay tuned for Part II – Holding the actual meeting.