December 4, 2011

Do Not Accept Other People’s Problems

Tho and Van each try to give the other their messy problem.

If you are accepting responsibility for your people’s problems then you are a lousy leader.

“Wait,” you might say.  “My job as a leader is to take responsibility for problems.”

No, it isn’t.

Your responsibility as a leader is to help your people solve problems.  It is not to solve their problems for them.

When one of your people comes to you with a problem do you say “Ok I’ll figure out a solution for you?”  If so, then congratulations!  Now YOU own the problem.

And if now you own the problem, why do you have staff at all?  Why don’t you do everything?

Like most of my most valuable management lessons, I learned this one the hard way (see my post on Chain of Command).  Early in my career as a general manager I had a Marketing Director who was not performing.  Foolishly, I accepted responsibility for her work product.  Although I didn’t understand it at the time, the moment I accepted responsibility for her work product was the moment I became the de-facto Marketing Director.  I didn’t get the Marketing Director’s salary though.  Not a very good deal.  Not a very good way to get performance from my team either.

I’m a little smarter now.  I realize that while I’m happy to help them, I must make sure my people understand that they — not me — own 100% of the responsibility for solving problems in their job.

When someone asks me to solve their problem now my response is something like this:

I can get the shoeshine kid from the street and pay him your salary so he can stand here and tell me about problems he wants me to solve.  Telling me about problems is easy.  I pay YOU to solve problems.

Now, how can I support you?

Try it the next time one of your people tries to give you responsibility for their problem.  It feels pretty good.

PS – Accountability flows up the chain of command, not down.  In other words, your people are accountable to you for solving all problems in their area of responsibility.  And you are accountable to your boss for solving all problems of you and your team.

[Special shout-out to Marc Cenedella for the “shoeshine kid” bit.]
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