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The Ideal Employee: Don’t Bring Problems, Bring Solutions

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Yesterday I created a post about the three most important attributes of corporate leaders: discipline, comfort with ambiguity, and a strong customer focus. Today I am going to share my thoughts on what makes an ideal employee. But before I do, I want to provide some insights into the manager/executive mindset to frame the discussion.

As we discussed yesterday, when you move up the corporate ladder, higher level roles and the problems faced in these roles become more ambiguous. That is, the challenges are harder and the path forward is less clear. Most employees at lower levels of the organization do not understand this, so they think that managers and executive roles are like their role, that is, well defined and easily measured. As such, they tend to underestimate how much time is needed to do executive jobs well.

Because of this, lower level employees, when faced with challenges and obstacles, often escalate these issues to their managers to ask for the “solution.” To explain what I am talking about, let’s use a common example. Assume that you are trying to expand into a new market and you have set up a couple of new channel partners (i.e. distributors) to carry your product into these regions. Because you are a disciplined manager, you have worked with your team to develop a plan that identified key objectives, screening criteria for potential partners, the acquisition of partners, and detailed account plans to measure success. Everything is going to plan, the new distributors have been hired, so you turn over the account management and metrics to your manager. One quarter later, it turns out the distributors are not meeting their sales objectives by a wide margin.

At this point, 90% of managers during the metrics review, will provide one of many excuses:

  • “Our distributors are behind plan. What should we do?”
  • “Let’s be honest, the target wasn’t achievable anyway, so we need to be more realistic in our targets.”
  • “We are not getting the support we need from the local marketing team (or whatever function) so the problem lies with them.”

Sound familiar? It should. Poor/average employees “bring problems” for their management to solve. This puts more burden on senior leaders who are already stretched incredible thing on time. Let’s pick each one of these responses apart in detail to understand what is really being said:

“Our distributors are behind plan. What should we do?”

This is a classic example of a phenomenon I call “making my problem your problem” and is very common. What the employee is really saying is “my job is getting hard, I don’t know what to do, I want my manager to bail me out.” What should a manager do in this situation? Don’t let the employee of the hook, and don’t step in and “solve” the problem for them, however tempting that may be. Remember, good managers are good coaches, so we want our employees to spread their wings and learn how to deal with these ambiguous situations. Suggestions on how to deal with these situations:

  • Help the employee brainstorm hypotheses as to what may or may not be happening. Say something like “Interesting…why do you think the distributors are under-performing?”
  • Once the employee has a long list of hypotheses, have them collect data to confirm or deny their hypotheses. Help them brainstorm data that may be useful to collect for each hypothesis and give them a certain amount of time to collect, analyze and present back to you their findings.
  • Ensure they are using the data to identify the root cause of the problem. Often, the real root cause is not the first hypothesis that has come to mind. After you encourage your employee to create a habit around forming and confirming/denying hypotheses, they will get better at this over time.
  • Finally, once the root cause has been identified, have the employee create a 30/60/90 day recovery plan (with accompanying milestones and metrics) to get back on track.

“Let’s be honest, the target wasn’t achievable anyway, so we need to be more realistic in our targets.”

This is good old fashion complaining about the target. The way to deal with this is to share with your employee YOUR metrics (all metrics should cascade), how their metrics are critical to achieving your metrics, and how your metrics tie to the overarching company strategy. To be fair, companies in general (and many managers in particular) do a poor job of communicating strategy and goals down through the organization. I make a habit of starting every single one of my monthly staff meetings by sharing my metrics and goals with my employees (publicly) before I have them share their goals and metrics with the broader team. This creates alignment and connectivity throughout the organization.

  • The LAST thing you want to do (and I see new managers do this all the time…) is to water down the metric to make it more achievable. There are many reasons why this is bad:
    • It teaches employees that when the going gets hard, you will make it easier
    • It fails to prepare employees for success at higher levels in the organization (where metrics, especially metrics shared with investors/Wall Street are set in stone).
    • It’s a great example of when it’s “cruel to be kind.” That is, you may think you are being kind to your employees by lowering the target and making them “feel good” about achieving metrics, but what you are really doing is stopping their career growth and development which will only hurt them in the future.

“We are not getting the support we need from the local marketing team (or whatever function) so the problem lies with them.”

This is classic finger pointing. Nip it in the bud as quickly as possible. I have found the best way to do this is to “call their bluff.” That is if, for example, the employee is in marketing and they are pointing the finger at the sales organization, say “Great. I am going to set up a call with the sales team and we can discuss metrics and goal attainment with them. Make sure you bring your goals and evidence to show they are not meeting their objectives…I am sure they will want to see it.” What generally happens at this point is the employee starts backtracking and will try to assign blame to a different organization. [Note: of course, there are times on complex projects where other functions are not aligned. In this case, have a cross functional meeting, compare objectives and metrics to ensure everyone is aligned, and set up an action plan that clearly states who needs to do what by when. Then hold people accountable.]

  • Have a discussion about the importance of accountability. To paraphrase, these discussions always sound something like: “I understand you are not hitting your metrics and you think the issue is because X functions is not pulling their weight. Can you provide data to show this is true? Do they understand the importance of this project/initiative/metrics and are they aligned to your work plan? You are the leader of this project/initiative/metric so I am holding you accountable to ensure everyone is aligned and functioning properly. If you need help, I am happy to provide coaching and assistance, but I am looking to you to be ultimately responsible for the success or failure of this project/initiative/metric.”

If you are lucky, you may have someone on your team who instinctively brings solutions, not problems. I gave the example above because it was a real life example from my past job where I was a Strategic Marketing Director for North and South America for a $3.5B products business (basically, I was the CMO for this business.) In this role, I hired a new employee named Richard and tasked him with setting up a new distribution channel to better penetrate the Latin American market. About 30 days after we launched the new distributors and account tracking processes (and before I even had a chance to look at the metrics to see whether or not we were on plan), Richard reached out to me with the following note:

“Hi Ryan. Just wanted to let you know that we launched the new distributor channel management program and we are off plan by about 8%. I did some digging, and it turns out that we are under-performing in Panama and Costa Rica. I have already reached out to the distributors in those regions and it turns out that they never received the distributor quick start kits from the channel management group. I have a meeting scheduled next Tuesday at 8:00 AM with the channel management team with the objective of figuring out how we can expedite the delivery and training to the Costa Rica and Panama distributors. If need be, I can fly down and teach those distributors myself. I expect this action will result in an additional $80k in sales in the next two weeks which should get us back to plan.

This is my suggested path forward. Please let me know if you disagree or have any concerns, otherwise I will proceed with this plan of action.”

Talk about impressive! Do you see what Richard did? He didn’t say “I’ve got a problem, now it’s your problem,” rather he took initiative and ownership of the issue, laid out an action plan and proposed solution, proactively kept his manager in the loop, and asked for assistance ONLY if I didn’t agree with the path forward (that is, he respected my time). This, in my mind, is what best in class looks like. People who respond like Richard are your A-Players and are executives in the making. It should go without saying that I always supported Richard’s approach and it worked very well not only with me (his direct manager) but other leaders in the organization. Within six months of my hiring Richard he was receiving multiple job offers and promotions within the company because this is the behavior all managers look for in their employees.

Needless to say, this is how I ALWAYS communicate issues to executive management. The formula is as follows:

  1. Proactively flag the issue. Briefly describe the situation using data (“we are off plan by 8%”). Do not wait for a formal review to air an issue–flag it as soon as possible as nobody likes surprises.
  2. Identify the root cause. (“The Panama and Costa Rica distributors never received their quick start kit.”) Clearly communicate what the real issue is.
  3. Propose a solution. (“Need to get quick start kit to distributors.) This is what I mean by “don’t bring a problem, bring a solution.
  4. Have an action plan with clear steps, accountability, and a timeline. (“I have already set up a meeting with the channel management team next Tuesday…”) Make clear what needs to be done, by whom and when.
  5. Quantify the impact. (“This should generate an additional $80k in revenue which will get us back to plan…”) Give confidence that this action will fix the problem.
  6. Ask for alignmentbut don’t wait for permission. (This is my plan of action… let me know if you have any concerns). Great employees don’t want to be micro-managed, they want to solve their own problems but want to be guided if what they are doing is way of track.

My recommendation for you, noble readers, is the following:

  • If you have a leadership role, coach your employees to follow the outline above and bring solutions, not problems. Fight the impulse to step in and solve problems for employees and definitely fight the urge to micro-manage (unless necessary). This will result in empowered employees and will save you a tremendous amount of time and effort digging into issues.
  • If you are NOT in a leadership role, I STRONGLY RECOMMEND you start using the steps outlined above. This is probably the #1 tactic I have used that has turbo charged my career progression. I often mentor employees and peers and always teach this methodology and I always receive very positive feedback. I think you will be amazed at how well this approach works and I promise that your managers will appreciate you taking a more proactive approach to problem resolution.

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