problem-solving leaders

Six Characteristics of Problem-Solving Team Leaders

A big part of any leadership role is being able to troubleshoot. It might be strategizing to get a project that has derailed back on track, attracting new business or leveraging technology.

Whatever the problem, there are four basic steps that problem-solving leaders generally use:

  1. Define the problem
  2. Generate options
  3. Evaluate and choose an option
  4. Implement the solution

Great leaders don’t try to problem-solve on their own.

They don’t carry that burden because they know that a skilled team will better define the root of a problem, will generate better options and will better evaluate to find the best option and will implement the solution together.  

BUT, how do you and your team get to a point where you draw out all those benefits without feeling that “it would be easier to just do this myself”?

How Problem-Solving Leaders Involve Team Members

Here are a few things that really successful team leaders do:

Practice open communication and seek input from team members – One of the biggest challenges of solving a problem is getting to the root of it. Don’t assume people are comfortable sharing what they think. You may have to probe for it.

Pro-tip: Don’t overreact when they share upsetting, difficult or disheartening news. For example, if they share that someone overlooked something, someone contributed to the problem, etcetera – take the information as a learning opportunity. Thank them for noticing the problem.

Be open to considering why something was missed. Knowing why something happened (or didn’t happen!) will help you figure out how to avoid communication breakdowns in the future.

Remember, you want to encourage your team to share openly in the future, so don’t punish this behaviour. It’s important for problem-solving leaders to be able to hear bad news.

Break down silos – Effective leaders break down silos (sub-divisions of the organization that act independently). This is tied to open communication because silos are typically built as a result of three things:

  1. An organizational culture that pits units against each other for scarce resources;
  2. Organizational design that builds vertical units more than functional teams (note I didn’t say, instead of functional teams – good organizations can blend vertical units with cross-unit teams); and
  3. Strong individual leaders or weak individual leaders. That’s right, strong or weak.

You see, leadership teams made up of particularly strong team leaders (VPs, etcetera) are often not teams, but rather groups of highly successful individuals who are often quietly competing against each other.

Imagine that the VP of Marketing is a rock-star marketer but doesn’t trust the sales VP. The VP of Sales is one of the best salespeople you’re ever going to meet, but he thinks the VP of Finance doesn’t understand how truly, singularly important sales are to the organization. The VP of Finance is probably the best comptroller and accountant you’ve ever met – and she thinks the Marketing VP thinks the organization is made of money and the Sales guy thinks he walks on water.  

Know what that is? That is a team of strong and capable leaders, each leading their own silo instead of leading the company.

Sadly, silo-building also occurs when you have weak leaders who want to protect themselves and hide their shortcomings. They, too, tend to build an empire of support under them and try to hide things from their peers and boss.

The answer? Improving relationships to build stronger teams.

Big picture thinking  – Great, problem-solving leaders have a clear vision of the big goals. Not only that, but they clearly and engagingly articulate that picture, constantly, to the team under them.

When leaders keep reminding their team members of the big picture, problem-solving becomes clearer.

Even better, when we have a number of possible solutions – none of them obviously the “right one” and most of them not a terrible idea – we go with the one that is most aligned with getting us to the bigger goals and most aligned with our bigger values as an organization. That one may not be the simplest, most obvious solution you come to if you don’t constantly keep your eye on the end game.

Avoid blaming and accusing – It may seem obvious to say this but so many of us can easily fall back into the habit of showing our frustration. At the worst, you might fall into being an executive bully. Set a tone of learning from mistakes and solving the problem.

Stay positive – Good leaders show positivity even when the team is struggling. That doesn’t mean blind naivete, nor does it mean lying to everyone — but remaining positive about the situation (perhaps you could say positive and realistic) helps keep up momentum. Knowing you and your team can solve big problems and letting that optimism show will encourage everyone to pull together.

Follow through – Figuring out a solution isn’t the end; you have to see that solution implemented and then monitor to make sure it’s working the way you thought it would. A lot of stellar big-picture leaders drop the ball on this one.

You may also need to apply what you’ve learned with this problem to other areas of your team’s work and so monitoring the success of the follow-through will pay off many times over.

Coach’s Questions

Which problem-solving characteristics do you recognize in yourself? Which would you like to develop? What can you do to facilitate problem-solving this week?