...or a Problem-Finder?”
Like many leaders, in the early days of my career, I fancied myself as a problem-solver. My behavioral assessments reinforced it and, quite frankly, I was good at it. However, at the point where I began leading larger corporate teams, I realized being a problem-solver was not enough. And so began a journey to re-define myself as a problem-finder. As a leader, it was important to be able to see potential problems and issues before they impacted our organization and clients. At one point, a client actually asked me directly if I had some sort of crystal ball (I didn’t) because we developed a strong sense of seeing what others did not!
It is why I ask organizational leaders of for-profit and non-profit organizations, business owners and emerging leaders, “Are you a problem-solver or a problem-finder?” Of course, since most are familiar with problem-solving, the first question I get back is, “What does it mean to be a problem-finder?” Let’s explore the differences and the importance of being a problem-finding leader, especially in light of this new global reality:
- Problem-Solving ~ As stated earlier in this article, most leaders identify with being problem-solvers. When I ask in speeches and workshops who in the audience identifies with being problem-solvers, I get a near unanimous response. Problem-solving is exercising some level of flexibility to reactively solve a problem or issue that appears generally within the scope of one’s job description, experience and expertise. Methodical problem-solving is taught in academia and the workplace alike so problem-solvers can apply a structured approach when these problems and issues arise. The challenge is that once the problem or issue has been solved, the problem-solver typically begins their search for another problem to solve. It’s like the firefighter who is awesome at putting out fires, yet never asks why the fires started in the first place!
- Problem-Finding ~ When we speak of problem-finding, we are now asking why the fires started in the first place. It is a proactive attitudinal approach to seeking out and identifying potential problems and issues that will have an impact on the organization, both positively and negatively. By being able to look ahead to what potential problems and issues might occur helps determine what decisions need to be made now based on what potential problems and issues leaders foresee based on their business and market experience. I came across a recent example in this video where my West Point classmate, LTG Todd Semonite, who heads up the Army Corps of Engineers talks about problem-finding. At the 2:00 mark in the video he makes clear his expectations as his leaders work with state and local leaders to get ahead of the pandemic.
This is not to imply that problem-solving and problem-finding are mutually exclusive or that one is better than the other. Both are crucial to effective leadership. However, the absence of problem-finding severely limits the effectiveness of organizational leadership!
As leaders navigate these waters of the new global reality, it is now more important than ever they seek out and identify potential problems and issues while the problems of today are being solved. What are the problems still to be found on the other side of this current downturn? What contingencies need to be considered now to address those problems? What decisions made now will put the organization in good standing when the recovery begins?
Leaders don't need a crystal ball to be problem-finders. They need a deep understanding of their industry’s past and present to create a sustainable future for their organizations. They need to put the available reliable information into organizational context and make decisions to create future desired results. As Khalil Gibran once stated, “Progress lies not in enhancing what is, but in advancing what will be.”
How are you as a leader problem-finding for your organization?
Lead Well and Be Safe!