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Forward Attitude

Five Points to Getting the Most Out Being a Problem Solver


There I was, starting my first week of being CEO of a university technology spin-out, and reality was in my face, obnoxious and rude. The founding professor wanted help for his graduate student, the grant project manager wanted another signature before releasing funds, the university tech-transfer wanted payment for sunk costs because the grant was approved, and, of course, the equipment order didn’t go through because they lost it. Phone calls, meetings, and demands for immediate solutions for problems I didn’t cause and unrelated to my company.

I didn’t sign up for this.

No, I thought I was using my skills to bring awesome university discovered technology to market and reduce fossil fuel use—save the planet.

So I went home early to get away. And then? My son needed a ride to track practice, my daughter needed help with history, and a note from my wife to fix the toaster. Of course, the neighbor’s mail was delivered to my house.

Problems and more problems. Everyone asking me to solve their problems like I have nothing else to do in the world.

I didn’t sign up for this.

How did I get yanked down from my lofty dreams into the mundane of daily cash-flow analysis, giving step-by-step instructions on how to access that file from the cloud, and doing the laundry at home.

Over the last few years I’ve taken up a mini-hobby…to observe the business owners I meet along the way and see how they handled problem solving for other people’s problems.  What I’ve found is all of them, yes, every single business owner I’ve met has had problems to overcome on their path to success. And it was the most successful ones that surprised me the most. Not only did they overcome their problems, but they actually embraced solving other people’s problems. Yes, embraced problem solving.
They actually embraced solving other people’s problems.

The wake up punch came when I parked my car and rushed to a business meeting. I got interrupted.  How dare that young mother ask me to jump-start her car so I’ll be 15 minutes late to my meeting?

Then the wake-up punch landed: The most successful business folks I’ve met embrace solving other people’s problems before their own.

What would you do?

Zig Ziglar’s famous mantra is “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”

Jesus said, “If you only love those who love you, what reward do you have?”

John C. Maxwell puts it this way: “Problems, responded to correctly, can actually advance us forward.”

The wake-up call seemed like a sucker punch. I sulked for a couple of days and took the time needed for me to reconcile my attitude to the real world. I need some ego-busting adjustments to accept my role as a problem solver. You see, my personality leans heavily towards the achievement, analytical, and task driven side. Priorities set the goals, goals set the tasks, then add some hard work and success is guaranteed. That is the world’s wisdom and I had subscribed to it.  Zig Ziglar’s famous mantra haunted me: “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”

I got over it. I added ‘I am a problem solver’ to my role as a business owner and leadership. And it changed my business for the better…and increased my enjoyment of life and family.

But I didn’t stop there. I continued exploring and seeking out how other successful business folks handled being a problem solver. Here are five things I discovered.

#1: Leadership is Problem Solving

Here’s a quote from General Colin Powell as told by biographer Dr. Oren Harai. “The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

What General Powell is reminding us is that people will come for us to solve their problems and we should embrace it. The ability to solve problems is a vital skill in today’s world, and frankly, not enough people have this skill. That is one reason why the work for us.

#2:  When People Come to You with Problems, It’s a Good Thing

This is a carryover from General Powell’s quote. Most of us running our own business and families have the ability to analyze the path forward and navigate the new solutions and ways. Unfortunately, many people don’t, especially children. This is one area where we contribute and add value to our family and community.

Often unscheduled things interrupt our day and our goals. It’s okay to deal with it. Be flexible and definitely keep proper boundaries. Be self-aware of your personality propensities and react in an appropriate way. For example, if you’re task driven, like me, try not to bark at people. Maintain a good attitude, or at least tolerate it, when people seek your help with their problems. This is good for business and family relationships.

#3    You Can’t Solve Every Problem

Now when I say embrace problem solving for others, I don’t mean go out and solve every single problem that people bring to us – that’s just not going work for anyone. There are some things that others just have to do for themselves. For example, if a bookkeeper asks me for help on entering expenses into the computer, I say ‘figure it out yourself – it’s your job’. Trying to fixing that class of problem doesn’t help anyone in the long run. Of course, if the computer is a hand-me down from the 1990’s running Windows 95, then the issue is not entering numbers in bookkeeping software, but about you fixing employee performance issues with better equipment.

Sometimes unreasonable expectations are placed upon you. In business, if you’re asked to solve structurally entrenched issues or do all three of the faster-cheaper-better iron triangle. In most cases you can only do two out of the three, I suggest being upfront and clearly saying this is unreasonable to the demanders. Often the following discussion allows for better approaches and expectations. If you can not work it out, get out. Don’t set yourself up for failure even if there’s a short-term financial hit. It’s just not worth it in the long run.

#4   Create a FAQ to Answer Repeated Questions

Isn’t it annoying to get the same question asked over and over. While not perfect at it, I have learned to take the time to create FAQ (Frequency asked Questions) documents. Fortunately, this is one area that taking the time to help others ends up helping yourself. Now I don’t spend much time on FAQ’s to be perfect, but first get something out quick and improve on it over time.

An FAQ can be in the form of:

  • Accessible information: documents, video recording, webpage, PDF, Email Template, etc.
  • Documenting your business process so others can do the job without asking questions.

#5  Problem Solving in a Family Setting is Different Than in Your Business

It is very helpful to adjust to the home front dynamics. How are they different? For starters, most family interactions are not transactional like in business, where buying and selling is the usual activity. For example, is it not generally reasonable to say to a 3-year-old toddler, ‘you didn’t clean your room so under our contract I don’t have to feed you.’ Doing that is a bad idea.

Another family difference is planning for long term relationships. Children take nearly two decades to grow up, sometimes more if you include college. An idea is to teach your kids to problem solve and reduce your worry as they become more independent and on their own.

Your relationship with your spouse is a very, very long term relationship. I know a few couples that have been married over 50-years. A relationship that long is hard for me to fathom, but just knowing that it’s possible and rewarding is, well, comforting. Comforting in the sense that they overcome their life challenges and problems and things worked out for them. And by inference, so can me.

Anyway, family problems are more open ended and challenging. It takes time and thought to work through some of them. But the end results and benefits can far exceed the results in business. So, I encourage you all to make the time to think and navigate the course for your family. With, of course, plenty of inputs from key family stakeholders. Adding a little slack and flexibility to plans helps too.

In summary, problem solving is an unwritten rule and key skill to run your business and family. And for most business owners and leaders, problem solving is a natural talent. So, many people will seek you out for you to help them on their problems. I encourage you not to resent such incursions, but embrace it in your own way and style.

You are a problem solver. Embrace it. Arise2Live!