The job of a leader is a busy one, and we continually strive to be working on the most important work we have “on our plate”. One way I tried to assure that I was working on the most important work was to develop a daily “Priorities” list (think “Things to Do” list). At the end of the workday, I would review what I had gotten done that day, what new issues had arisen, and then rank my priorities for the following day. I would keep that list on my desk so that I was focused on it throughout the day. At the end of each workday, one way I would evaluate my effectiveness that day was to see how many of those top priorities I had gotten completed.
In a perfect world, all leaders would need to do is focus on their priorities. But we know that never happens. Throughout each day, issues will arise from your team members, business partners/customers, and your leaders. Thus, a leader has to effectively manage these “interruptions” that will occur throughout the day, so that they can assure that they are working on the most important work.
In this article, I’ll focus on those situations where a team member will stop by your office and ask if you have a minute for a discussion. When this occurs, leaders have the option to address the issue at the time, or, depending on the issue and what the leader is currently working on, ask their team member if they would set up a short meeting, hopefully later that day, to discuss. How a leader handles those interruptions will tell you a lot about how effective they are.
I always wanted to be helpful in those situations, after all, helping team members with problems was a part of why I was there, but I often times found myself taking on work that wasn’t anticipated, and may not have been the most important.
I learned a simple, but valuable, tip to help in these situations from one of my leaders. In my initial meeting with him to go over his basic expectations, he told me:
“If you bring me a problem, bring a possible solution”.
That sounds simple, but, if a leader doesn’t manage the situations in which a team member brings them a problem well, the team member who walked in with a problem, will walk out of the office, with the leader having taken on the problem. In some situations of course, this is completely appropriate. The problem brought to the leader may need the leader’s immediate attention. However, and this was often the case with me, if a leader is not careful, they will find themselves taking on the problem, or “the monkey”, that the team member brought to them, thus taking them away from the most important issues.
As I wrote about in my book Called to Lead, one leader I worked with had their team read the classic Harvard Business Review article “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey”? by William Oncken Jr. and Donald L. Wass. They then held a meeting to discuss the article, and she then gave all of her team members little plastic monkeys to effectively reinforce the message of the article and discussion. This exercise, and the monkeys that were often kept in the work area of her team members, reminded them that when they went to their leader’s office with a problem, they needed to come with at least one possible solution. This simple principle helps team members to develop their problem-solving skills, allows leaders to coach their team members, and also allows leaders to focus on the most important work they have to do.
So, let’s review the different ways things can go when a team member comes into your office with a problem (a monkey) that they share with you. When they leave your office, who has the monkey? There are a few options:
First, has the problem been solved? Perhaps it was, if like my leader your expectation is that when someone brings you a problem (a monkey), they also come with a solution. If that’s the case, we can stop here.
Second, the person who brings the problem might have come with a possible solution. After some conversation and feedback from the leader, the person who brought the problem leaves the office with more work to do. They came in with the problem and they also leave with the problem (monkey).
Third, the person who comes in with the problem doesn’t bring a solution. After some discussion, they leave the office and the problem has been taken from them by the leader. The leader has now assumed the monkey and put it on their own back. Sadly, this is what I would too often do. I would add this item to my already crowded priorities list.
Is this a new concept to you? What other helpful thoughts do you have about problem solving?