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June 25, 2013

Senior leaders shouldn't try to solve every problem

“My direct reports always bring me problems, and not one of them brings solutions,” one institutional leader lamented recently at a training program. “They just bring me problem after problem, some of which I don’t care about, and they want me to solve all of them for them.”

She’s not alone.

Anecdotally at least, many institutional leaders struggle with direct reports who see it as their role to raise problems -- but who don’t understand their responsibilities also include triaging problems and, when a problem needs senior leader attention, bringing recommended solutions with them.

To put it bluntly, no senior leader has the bandwidth to solve every problem within an institution. Leaders need direct reports who are as proactive as possible.

As Roman Stanek, CEO of GoodData, said recently in an interview with The New York Times’ ‘Corner Office’ series, “a good manager must be more than a messenger.”

But how does a senior leader change the nature of a relationship so that problems can be addressed as efficiently as possible and, when necessary, solutions are brought to the table?

First, it is predictable to say that a senior leader must make his or her expectations clear in this regard, but it is equally important that a senior leader examines the way she or he might be subtly undermining these stated expectations.

Direct reports often complain that their bosses say they want problems triaged and solutions offered -- but that their leader’s behavior sends the message that they want to know everything happening in the institution and solve the problems personally. Being clear about expectations is absolutely necessary, but senior leaders must behave according to the standards they have defined.

Second, it is helpful to examine institutional culture for clues to explain the behavior of the direct reports.

If every problem within an organization eventually finds its way to the senior leader’s desk for action, this might suggest some institutional anxiety. It could be that managers are anxious because they don’t feel empowered to do their jobs, they don’t feel they understand institutional priorities well enough to know what their boss really cares about, or they don’t understand the vision well enough to act upon it or in accord with it. All of these things can and need to be addressed, and the organization will benefit when they are.

Finally, make it a clear goal. As part of employee evaluation processes, many institutions have supervisors and direct reports identify particular learning needs and development goals for the calendar year.

“Respond to problems appropriately and offer solutions as necessary” is a great goal. By naming it specifically, it prompts a conversation within the office over the course of a year. If a direct report has not changed behavior at the end of the year, a more serious conversation about professional development may be needed.

No institution thrives when constrained by a senior leader who tries to solve every problem. Marshaling the energy and capacity of direct reports is essential -- and it liberates senior leaders to do the work that they alone can best do.


This is important but hard to do

Great article Nathan! As a leader of a spiritual community, and someone who coaches leaders of faith communities and non-profits, this is an issue I deal with all the time. I appreciated the insight that senior leaders often express frustration that they are constantly interrupted with questions and requests for approvals by direct reports ... but on the other hand, their behavior encourages this pattern. Leaders have to get more clear about lines of authority, and then be really ruthless with themselves about not meddling or weighing in with "input" about matters that have been delegated. Easy to talk about, hard to do.

Re: This is important but hard to do

Mark, you are exactly right. This is difficult to do well. I appreciate your insight about getting ruthless with ourselves, and this is also a great argument for increased transparency at the top because few of us can make large changes in our behavior / management style alone.

Senior leaders don't have the time...

Great post. Everywhere we look, we see senior leaders strapped for time. This whole dynamic described in this post is a major factor in many organizations. One helpful tip for finding out where your time is going is tracking your time with time sheets. Sounds elementary, and it is. But Check out this video where retired COO of Walmart, Don Soderquist, describes his use of the tool... Don Soderquist on Time Tracking.

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