“Gosh, this is a huge problem!” Renu said, leaning forward, elbows on the table, hands clasped in front of her.
Bert smiled, pleased with Renu’s reaction. Bert was a newly-promoted warehouse supervisor, having worked in the warehouse for two years fresh out of high school. He proved himself to be a hard worker with a lot of promise. Renu, the plant manager, saw Bert as a high-potential employee who had the passion and talent to ultimately take her job someday.
“I’ve been saying this was a problem for a long time,” Bert said.
“So what do you think we should do about it?” Renu asked.
Bert stopped for a minute, not expecting the question. “Well, I’m not sure.”
“You’re not sure?” Renu asked, her eyes locked with Bert’s.
“Um, no, not yet.”
Bert could feel the little droplets of perspiration forming on his forehead.
“Bert, you bring me a problem, but no proposal on what to do about it?”
“Well, I, uh, didn’t think we’d be talking about solutions here.”
Renu saw what was happening and decided to turn the meeting into a teachable moment.
“Bert, you and I have talked about your potential and you know how vested I am in your success. Anyone can identify problems; people who only identify problems are average at best. The ones who rise above are those who not just articulate a problem, but also follow it up with a proposed solution. Did you see how engaged I was when you articulated the problem to me?”
“Right, I was bought into your problem. That was the time to articulate what should be done about it– when you had my attention. When you come in without a solution to your problem it leaves me frustrated. I really want to know what you think and want to see your problem-solving skills in action. Does this make sense?”
Bert gave a slight smile, realizing that the meeting turned into a selling idea lesson. “It does.”
“Good, now how about we get together again in a couple of days and try this again.”
“Sounds good, I’ll get time on your calendar,” Bert said as he got up from his chair.
“Very good. Take care, Bert, and close the door on your way out.”
Tollgate 3: I understand what you want to do about it
After agreement on the problem, the next step is to articulate your course of action. This could be in the form of a target solution that addresses the problem or specific steps you think need to be taken to come up with a target solution. The important thing here is clarity. Whatever you propose, make sure it’s specific, quantifiable, realistic, and relevant. Specific means that you’ve drawn a clear line between the problem and the course of action; that it’s clear to the exec how the course of action addresses the problem. Quantifiable means that the course of action is measurable; that it would be clear whether or not the course of action was actually attained. Realistic means that the course of action can be realized given available time and resources; that the exec could secure what is needed to execute the course of action. Relevant means that the course of action is germane to the scope, values, and priorities of what the exec controls or has influence over; proposing something that is out scope of what the exec can influence will just get you a “I can’t do anything about this,” response.
By no means should you be like Bert and present a problem without a course of action. It labels you as someone who raises problems without recommendations on how to solve them. Anyone can raise problems; it’s the competent professionals who articulate what to do about them.
Again, positive engagement from the exec is crucial. Getting some questions and context is a good step to securing the exec’s buy-in. Things could get difficult if the exec disagrees with the course of action accompanied by your inflexibility to deviate from your proposal. Be very in tune to what the exec is communicating and look to incorporate some of his or her thinking into your course of action.