Senior leaders shouldn't try to solve every problem

Through clear expectations and goals, leaders need to encourage and empower direct reports to recommend solutions.

“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.