Why Confront Problems

When you notice a problem at work, what do you do? Does your heart sink? Do you close the email and go on to something else?

Or do you do something about it?

Good managers don’t turn away from problems they discover.  If it makes sense for them to fix the problem on their own, they do. If they need to take a partner to get it fixed, they do that instead. Why? Because they consider it their job to make their organization a better place, a place where problems don’t have to be worked around. A place where every employee has a stake in the game. A place where they want to make things better for their colleagues because they like working with them (and because they hate the culture of complaining).

Leaders, however, go beyond fixing problems that come to them – leaders seek out problems that need to be fixed. If you’re in sales, you talk to your customers, you ask questions, you listen to the answers. You uncover opportunities to make things better, then go back to the office and take action.

I once took a VP of merchandising on a store tour because he wanted to know why his product wasn’t being merchandised accurately. I “walked the process” with him in several stores: how the product entered the store, how the receiving team used the technology to sort the product for placement, how the manager responsible for displaying the product on the fixtures used the scanner to find out where to put it and when. I asked the managers questions, interpreted their answers for the VP, and then asked them to show us examples of the problems they encountered. We discovered that the managers couldn’t identify obsolete items or see the placement data on their scanner because the VP’s team in the office hadn’t been updating the data in the system correctly. The VP made a note to go back and work with his team to resolve these issues.

Then he really impressed me. Because I knew he wanted to focus on the merchandising and we had limited time that day, I had only lightly touched on the employee-scheduling process. But he wanted to know more about how the stores apportioned time for merchandising his product (vs. product from other merchandising VPs), and how they scheduled time for cleaning up product after customers had been browsing it all day. We ended up having an in-depth conversation on a topic no other merchant had ever expressed curiosity about. As a result of his initiative, I was able to identify several other opportunities for improving my processes to better support the stores as well as improving support to his area and other areas of merchandising.

Compare this the attitude of a different VP that I ran into in the elevator one day.  I asked if he would be visiting the distribution center before holiday sales ramped up because I had heard that several merchandise VPs would be going to check on their products with the DC management team. (I hadn’t spent much time with this VP and was hoping to join his DC visit, not only to get to know him, but also so I could see his product in person and get in front of any issues that the stores might have with it.) The VP’s response surprised me: “No, I’ve seen distribution centers, I know how they work.”

Who’s going to get the best results? The VP who isn’t curious about how his product will be handled during the three peak sales months by a distribution center that he’s never seen?  Or the VP who seeks to understand the whole picture so he can adapt his systems to leverage the processes outside his control and / or influence changes to those processes?

I am like most leaders: I love it when my people bring me solutions to problems they discovered! My door has always been open for a team member to pop in and say, “Hey, I was working on this and saw something funny.  I poked and discovered it wasn’t just a one-time thing, so I called so-and-so and we looked at the data and he’s going to escalate the issue for an IT fix by the end of the week. Here’s the memo I wrote telling the field what’s going on and how they need to work around the issue until it’s fixed, do you want any changes?”

That’s the kind of leader that belongs on my team!

In my book, you need to be the one to confront problems and propose solutions – because if you want a great job, you have to be the one to make things better. If you don’t, that job will go to someone who will.

The exception always proves the rule – so what’s the exception here?  Speak…

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