In many cases, people become managers because they solve problems better than others. And problem solvers can be quite proud to tell others how to implement the solutions they have discovered. While being a problem solver may be a normal path to management, it is a trap. For those managers who move to senior management, being the best problem solver can be frustrating, especially if you are the CEO. Therefore, the best managers have strong leadership skills. They are mission driven and empower their people to solve problems.
In previous articles, I talked about the transformation that occurs for top leaders. They transform from problem solvers to problem creators. In other words, leadership is paid to intentionally create problems for others to solve. For many, this is contradictory. Why? In school, we are trained to think like problem solvers. We are qualified and rewarded for solving the problems that the teacher gives us. That mindset stays with us. It’s the same mindset that is rewarded in the workplace. However, that mindset can work against leaders.
Leadership’s job is to invent new possibilities. When John F. Kennedy declared that America would send a man to the moon, it was not his job to figure out how to do it. His job was to allocate resources. The surprising thing about that initiative is that there would have been no budget for her before he said that the United States was committed to going to the moon. Had to budget. He even created NASA to run the mission. Kennedy’s time was better spent teaming up to accomplish the mission, rather than rolling up his sleeves and being a rocket scientist.
That said, instead of solving problems, Kennedy created one for others to solve. While spending time in meetings with NASA leaders, Kennedy could ask questions. I guess Kennedy didn’t tell the aeronautical engineers what to do. He would have asked what was possible and what resources they needed to make it happen.
Too often, leaders proudly tell their people what to do: micromanagers. Over time, staff and management become men who do. From there, the leader becomes frustrated because his people do not think for themselves. Because you solved most of the tough problems, they would have lost the ability to handle tough challenges effectively. They just run to the leader in search of the solution. As a result, the leader, especially the CEO, will have to fire the people around him and replace them with more experienced people. Except that he will eventually replace those people when the company outgrows them.
Imagine, on the other hand, that you have a team come up to you and say, “We have a problem. What should we do?” Instead of solving it, you ask them what they would do if you weren’t there. They may tell you that they will wait for you to return. (That answer could be very troublesome). Instead of being upset, it’s a training time. This is the time to use your experience to ask the right questions instead of solving them. Now imagine that over time that same team comes up to you and says, “We have a problem. I know you will ask these questions. I’ve already thought them through. This is where I am. Now I’m stuck.” At that point, you, as the leader, may know the answer. This is the time to ask them questions that they have not asked themselves. As that team evolves, they could easily solve problems without you. What you will eventually hear is “We had a major problem two weeks ago. It was partly our fault and partly the customers’ fault. We took full responsibility and this is how we solved it. I thought you should know about it. Oh, and by the way, by the way. The customer loved how we solved the problem. They called one of their customers and sent it to us. “
When your team reaches that level, you are ready for a new and more challenging possibility: the new problem you create. That new problem is better if it penetrates an untapped market and generates new income. Even that new possibility will arise because you, as a leader, began to ask yourself questions that you have never asked before. What questions are you asking?