I am so fortunate to have the opportunity to meet with many people and to encounter many different situations as I go about my work. I try to pay attention to what I observe and think, "What is the leadership lesson here?" Often, these observations make their way into this column. This time, the column is a bit of a smorgasbord of thoughts based on conversations I’ve had, situations I’ve seen unfold, and reading I’ve done over the last few weeks.
Lesson Learned # 1: Anyone can bring a problem. Leaders bring solutions. We all understand that we need employees and citizens to identify problems, and many times they are not in the position to give a solution. For example, on Friday, August 16, 2019, many Pensacola businesses had no water at all, no usable water, or no water pressure. I saw notices that restaurants had to close. It’s tough to be an owner of a baseball team and find out the bathrooms are not working. Luckily, around the second inning, they were back in service. On Saturday there were still signs on stores that some items were not available due to the water issue.
I imagine a number of government bodies were getting calls to let them know there were water issues. Letting people know there is a problem is a very good thing. For this issue, 99.9 percent of the people—due to not knowing water systems—could not offer a solution. That makes sense. However, I bet those with the job of supplying water and keeping water pressure up were expected to find a solution. And those who did so were good leaders—whether they came up with the solution themselves or asked the right people for help.
One reason a person is promoted or elected into a leadership role is that they normally display the ability to find and bring solutions to the table. My experience is that a big part of being a leader is developing a sense that it is not enough to identify a problem or an issue. Real leaders bring solutions. When I speak to groups, I will ask them if they went to another organization (or in the case of elected officials, another community), how long would it take them to identify the problems? The common answer is “not long.” This is correct: In a matter of days, or at most a few weeks, the problems are evident.
Sadly, some people feel a sense of real accomplishment in identifying the problems. The new manager who says, “We have a morale issue and too much staff turnover,” may think they have fulfilled their role, but they have not. The same is true of an elected official who says, “We need more affordable housing.” Most problems come as no surprise. Identifying them is the easy part.
The key is taking action to find solutions, whether you consider yourself a leader or want to be one. If you find yourself in a leadership position in which people bring problems and not solutions, take time to ask for a solution or idea before giving your thoughts. The magic sentence is “What do you think should be done?” People closest to the problem often have better solutions than leaders, and good leaders know that and create environments where employees don’t just bring problems but are always thinking of solutions.
Lesson Learned # 2: Beware of responding to generalities. Measure whenever you can. Most leaders have heard statements like “Everyone feels this way.” Don’t believe generalities. Always try to get the numbers. In Pensacola there is a speaker series called CivicCon, which brings well-noted experts to the community to share great ideas and best practices. After one such presentation, I received an email from someone who told me the CivicCon that week was a waste of time for everyone. This person was not there but shared that someone had told him this, and he was emailing because he felt others would not tell me.
I had been out of town myself and knew there had been problems with the visuals due to the brightness coming from the windows. I also knew at each event attendees fill out a survey, so I asked the person in charge to send me the evaluation results. It turned out that the event was rated a 9.4 on a 10-point scale. Yes, there were some comments about difficulty with seeing PowerPoints, but overall the results were positive. I sent a note to the person who wrote me, thanking him for the email, and included the evaluation results.
I am telling this story because I have seen some leaders overreact to a few random comments, without first taking the time to get a more complete picture. It’s easy to get emotional over the negative perceptions of a few people. Good leaders measure so they can keep such feedback in perspective.
The same is true for elected officials. Great credit should go to those elected officials who take time to provide town halls, measure their constituency regarding their thoughts on subjects, send information to those they represent on a regular basis, and attend events both social and educational where those they represent will be in attendance.
Measurement is our friend. This does not mean the person who is not happy is wrong. Their perception is their perception. Measurement helps put the issues into a better context.
Lesson Learned # 3: Do the research and ask the questions. Do so even if you feel you should know the subject matter and even if you are afraid you will look foolish. I am very pathetic when it comes to understanding mechanical items (and lots of other things). When a repairperson comes to the house to fix something and they start to explain it, they somehow think because I have knowledge in some areas, I am smart in others. I stop them and say, “Pretend I am in grade school and explain this in the simplest way possible.”
Years ago, when I got my first laptop at work, I opened it up and there was a taped sign by the on button that read “on.” They knew me.
Recently a small business owner who was in trouble came to see me. In looking at the situation, I saw that there were things the business owner did that could have been avoided if they had just asked for help. For example, they might have had someone really dig into the lease and the amount to receive for tenant improvements. Or they might have gotten a guaranteed maximum price (GMP) from the general contractor.
These kinds of things can be learned, either through painful experience or by seeking out mentors and other people with knowledge in the area. As Bert Thornton wrote in his book, Find an Old Gorilla, seek help from someone who has been there. Deflating an ego before an issue is far less painful than doing so after the issue.
These are just a few observations that I hope will help you. I know they have served as wonderful reminders for me and I am grateful for them. Thanks again for reading and for letting me into the classroom of your life.
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