I was working with a corporate client last week and we got into a conversation about developing their leaders.
The challenge: How can we get more of our people thinking and executing on problems like a CEO would? How do we get our leaders to step up to personally own bigger business problems and drive strategic opportunities, with less direction and involvement from the executives?
My favorite comment from the GM leading this organization was: When there is a crisis or a big opportunity that is not well defined and needs a leader, I want to be able to tap someone to go in, and say to them …“Here is a flashlight and a power bar, go make it happen.”
This discussion triggered an important point in my mind, and reminded me of great story that I wanted to share.
Who can step up?
The point is – when you are looking for people to step up, don’t just look to the next level of leadership. Look broadly.
You have people in your organization that have the motivation and the will to move mountains for you if you trust them and give them the chance.
The story: When I was a general manager running a billion dollar software business, one day my assistant casually shared this story with me about something that had happened during one of my trips.
Scene 1: an angry customer calls. While you were in Asia, a big executive from [a large telco customer] called and wanted to talk to you. I told him you were traveling in Asia, and asked if I could help him. He said, no, I need to talk to Patty.
Ownership of the problem
I heard him tapping his pen on his desk and I could sense he was stressed so I asked him, it sounds like you are upset about something. Why don’t you tell me what is happening, and then I can make sure it gets to Patty right away.
Then he started to talk. He told me he needed to talk with you because he was having [a catastrophic problem with our product].
I listened, and then assured him I would let you know soon as you landed, and I’d have you get right back to him.
As he explained the problem, although I didn’t understand all the details, I knew that it should either go to the VP of products or the VP or services to get solved.
Ownership of the action
So I called them both of them. The Product VP said that he would take the problem. I gave him the customer’s info and asked him to call the customer right away.
And I asked him to call me back afterward to confirm he had made contact with the customer and that the problem was being worked on.
Then I called the customer back, and told him: I just talked to Patty, and she understands your issue, and she has has assigned our VP of products to work with you to solve your problem. I have personally confirmed this with him. I will call you back tomorrow to confirm that you are satisfied with the action being taken, and so I can report back to Patty what is happening, so she can stay on top of this.
(scene cuts to Patty in a taxi in Korea, oblivious to this problem, stuck in a traffic jam…)
My assistant continues with the customer…Here is my direct phone number. Please call me if you have any questions or concerns.
Ownership of the outcome
She goes on to say, then I called him back the next day, AND the day after that, to make sure that things were progressing.
On the third day, I told him you were going to be back from Asia and asked him if he would like to schedule a call with you. He told me that wasn’t necessary, and make sure to thank Patty for taking care of this while traveling.
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Remarkable, don’t you think? I can’t emphasize enough that my assistant was telling me this in a similar tone to something like, “I have let corporate know that we have adhered to the new policy of stapling the old forms together before mailing them.”
In fact it was a couple of months after I returned that she told me this, and I had to drag it out of her that she had resolved customer crises in my absence several times.
She had natural strengths to empathize with people, take action, and own outcomes. She did not think she was doing something exceptional.
I learned a lot from her about owning problems and taking action from that one story.
Getting your leaders to step up
Much of my work today is about helping leaders feel more confident and capable to step up to deal with ambiguity, take action, face challenges and take personal ownership of the outcome.
There are two sides to this.
- You have to delegate and trust people to make things happen.
- People need to recognize that they have the permission to be the driver in a situation, and the imagination and guts to create solutions.
You need to let them practice making decisions if you want them to step up.
Owning the outcome
There are many other supporting skills and communications necessary to enable this, but it all starts with a shared expectation that you are supposed to step up and take ownership for the outcome of a situation.
How do you find and motivate these people to take on big, ugly problems? Look for people who aspire to be general managers. You won’t need to motivate them to take on extra work.
They will be self motivated because they will recognize you are giving them a special opportunity — a task that lets them skip levels in the organization, and gets them experience and exposure which will be a big deal in advancing their career.
Here’s a flashlight and a power bar… Get to it!
This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her new book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.