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Lead Your Team to the Answers
May 19, 2023
Read time: 4:98 minutes
As leaders of our firms, we are constantly hit with fires, issues, problems, and questions.
And, if you're like me, few things drive you more bananas than having an employee come to you and ask:
"Um, I ran into this problem. What should I do?"
Early in my career I was getting hit with this question on the regular.
This is what the conversation looked like every time.
Employee: Hey. This (insert issue/question/situation) just came up. What should I do?
Me: All you need to do is (insert solution).
Employee: Awesome! Thanks!
And the next time another (issue/question/situation) came up, they'd be back at my office door.
This is so annoying, isn't it?!
After all, aren't we paying them to think and solve problems on their own?
One particularly frustrating day, I walked into my boss' office pouting. We'll call him Mark.
"Why can't my team make literally ANY decisions without me?"
Mark briefly looked up at me and said, "That's because you're doing a poor job as their leader." and then went back about his work.
"How is THEIR inability to make a decision MY fault?"
My boss then gifted me an amazing mental model on how to lead people into decision making.
Leading Your Team to Making Decisions (without your input)
Mark started by explaining to me that I needed to approach these situations like a ladder with 4 rungs.
Any time a team member came to me asking me what to do, I needed to evaluate which rung of the ladder they were on.
My job was to coach them to the next higher rung on the ladder until they hit the top rung.
The First Rung: Hey boss, I have a problem. What should I do?
This is the default rung. This is where most people start. And, if you're not careful, this is where people will stay.
Employee comes in with a problem or a question.
You tell them how to solve the problem or answer the question.
You send them on their way to do the thing.
Even though this is the lowest step on the ladder, it's the most dangerous. Because when your team stays here, it ends up eating a ton of your time and it completely disempowers them.
Everyone ends up annoyed.
Your job is NOT to solve the problem or answer the question when they show up here.
Your job is to coach them to the next step.
Instead of the usual approach, try this:
"Great question! I'm slammed right now. Could you go put together 3 possible solutions and swing back by? We'll go over them together."
And this part is critical 👇
When they come back, walk them through your evaluation of their solutions. Show them which you want them to do and why.
Stay consistent with this approach. You're training your team to always show up with solutions instead of problems.
Eventually, they'll come to your door on the second rung...
The Second Rung: Hey boss, I have a problem. Here are 3 solutions. But which should I do?
We are making progress.
Once your team is consistently bringing you 3 possible solutions, it's time to coach up again.
It looks like this:
"Hey boss. I have this issue. Here are 3 possible solutions. But which one should I pick?"
Your response becomes:
"Interesting. Look, I'm really tied up right now. Could you go evaluate those ideas and come back with your top recommendation? Oh, please be ready to brief me on why you made that choice."
Once they come back, invest time to listen to their explanation. If you did a good job coaching in the first rung, they should understand how YOU make decisions by now.
If they miss the mark, explain why and what you'd do.
Once your team nails this step a few times, it's time to move up the ladder again.
The Third Rung: Hey boss, I have a problem. This is what I think I should do and why. Am I good to move forward?
Isn't this such a better place to be than where we started?
Your team is developing and you aren't bombarded with questions.
But there is also a danger lurking here:
Your team will sometimes miss the mark on the decision. And, if you're anything like me, the tendency can be to tell them no and "fix" them. But if you do this, it can send them back to rung 2 or even rung 1.
If the consequences aren't dire, allow your team make mistakes. Use them as coaching opportunities later. Obviously you have to balance various factors into this decision.
But if the consequences aren't fatal, let them do their thing.
Because this is where people feel empowered.
This is where a sense of autonomy is developed.
This is where people start to feel valued and appreciated.
The Fourth Rung: Hey boss, I had this problem. This is what I did. Just giving you a heads up!
Ahhh yes, what we've been looking for all along!
You've empowered your team.
You have your time back to focus on your work.
This is where trust lives.
This is the stuff of healthy cultures.
Next time someone comes to you with a problem, I want to encourage you to ask yourself where they are on the ladder.
Avoid the temptation to just solve the problem.
Instead, invest in them and their development.
This isn't easy.
The payoff isn't fast.
In fact, sometimes this is SLOW.
But it will pay dividends in the long run.
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