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When Should A Leader NOT Have All the Answers?


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by Kelly Vandever

At my second duty station in the Navy, I was second in command when my boss put me in charge of a special project team formed to solve a specific issue we were having in the organization.

The command was the Navy equivalent of a Human Resources department for the Naval Air Station in Pensacola.  One of our responsibilities was to process travel claims for sailors who were transferring to the base or who were traveling for temporary duty assignments (the military equivalent of a business trip).

The problem?  It was taking us an average of 45 days to process those travel claims.  Why was this a problem?  Because (1) Navy regulations required us to process the claims within 30 days, and (2) credit card companies want to get paid every month, not every 6 weeks.  So the sailors that were traveling were either having to come out of pocket to pay for their expenses or incur interest charges on their credit cards for not paying within 30 days.

The members of our project team who addressed this issue came from different roles within the organization that were part of the process.  And as I stated, I was the leader of the group.

The challenge with putting me in charge of this project team was I didn’t know how to fix the problem.  I hadn’t done the kind of work that is required to process travel claims (it’s not unusual in the Navy to be put in charge of people doing work that you yourself have never done).  And I was new to the command; I hadn’t been around long enough to really learn how the process worked.  In other words, if this problem was going to get fixed, it was up to the project team to make it happen.

And they did.

We took processing time down from 45 days, to LESS THAN 10 DAYS!!!

 I truly believe one of the reasons that the team was so successful was that they had a real say into how to solve this problem.  Put another way, they didn’t have a boss with all the answers, telling them what to do it.

Why Do You (and Other Leaders) Resist Appearing Like They Don’t Have All the Answers?

There are many reasons that leaders feel compelled to solve organizational problems themselves.

They’re often placed in leadership roles because they’re smart people and natural problems solvers.  Their inclination to immediately start solving has been rewarded…that’s why they’re a leader now!

They think as the boss others are expecting them to have all the answer.

They don’t want others to see them as incompetent.

They’re held responsible for the results so they’ll make the decisions.

They want to control what happens.

And the really ugly one…they fear that their employees will show them up.

But if a leader is willing to step back and let his or her employees speak up and really have say in addressing the organization’s issues, that leader can benefit greatly.

BENEFITS of Being Willing to NOT Have All the Answers

Your employees are closer to the issues and will see things you don’t.

People will share new and innovative ideas that you wouldn’t have even thought of.

It’s training up the next generation of leaders.

Research shows time and again that employees who are engaged employees produce overall better business results.

So, how can a leader receive these benefits…

Ways to NOT Be the Leader with All the Answers

Tell employees what you’re doing!  Tell them you honestly want to hear what they have to say so you’re going to resist solving the problem and ask them for their ideas.  Tell them you don’t have a preconceived idea of what you want to see happen – and mean it!  Reinforce for your employees that you really want the best idea on the table regardless of who gets the credit.

Start a discussion on your internal social media or intranet site.  Something as simple as…Hey, this is broken, we all know it’s broken. What do you think is wrong and what suggestions do you have to fix it? Going online gives people time to thoughtfully consider their response, particularly those who won’t normally speak up in a group.  Plus people can build off of each other’s ideas.

Open up the problem to members outside your group.  My friend Kevin Jones told me about a group of NASA engineers who did this.  They’d been struggling for months with a technical challenge within a specific team and they couldn’t figure it out.  They opened it up to outside groups (still within NASA) and received several quality suggestions and within two week, they had a stellar answer to their idea which they then went on to implement.  And the benefit was, these NASA employees making the suggestions basically did the work on their own time!  (After all they still had their regular job to do!)  They just wanted to help because they loved the intellectual challenge of the problem.  How could you ask others in your organization for their ideas to help crowdsource solving your group’s problem?

Be the role model.  Tell employees of examples where you did what you’re asking them to do.  Where you brought up an idea to your boss or respectfully disagreed with his/her suggestion.  Explain what happened and how that made you feel.  You’ll inspire them to want to follow suit.

Give employees a list of issues/projects and ask them to pick one and complete it however they’d like.  When I was talking to my friend Chip about engaging employees for better business results, he told me this great story about what he experienced.  Chip runs a small IT firm in South Carolina.  Each month, he had a team meeting and they’d cover some topic related to the business.  At his July team meeting, he decided to cover sales, and sure enough, he saw a jump in sales.  In August, he decided to focus on sales again and again he saw a jump in sales.  In September he decided to change things up and he asked each team member to own a project.  Chip had a list of projects that, if they were done, it would serve the organization and/or their clients going forward.  Chip even said they could come up with their own ideas, as long as they ran it past him first.  Everyone took on one of the projects, implemented the change, and the organization and their clients benefited.  But what Chip found especially interesting was that in September, they had an even bigger bump in sales than they’d had the previous two months when they were focused on sales!  People are motivated when they can own and solve problems…and they end up contributing more to the organization when you trust them.

Appoint a devil’s advocate.  To help avoid group think or for people to just blindly accept your suggestions, appoint someone in your group to serve as devil’s advocate and think of all the reason why the solution won’t work. It will keep you honest and it will give other people permission to speak up too. But be sure to rotate the role. You don’t want just one person always having to be the one to rain on your parades!

Ask for their suggestions first.  You may have some ideas about how to solve the problem, but resist the urge to make your suggestions.  Get in the habit of asking for employees’ ideas first.  (How do you think we should solve this problem?  What do your instincts say is the issue?)  Then keep asking questions. (Do yo see any holes in your approach? Who else do we need to consult?) Give them the opportunity and permission to use their brains and their experiences to solve the problems.

Quick Caveat…This Is Not an Excuse to Be Incompetent! 

Being willing to NOT be the one with all the answers isn’t an excuse for not doing your job. You need to be smart. You need to understand the work that your people do. But it is a willingness to take the back seat so your people can learn to drive for themselves. Plus, if you’re employees are working at their full potential and taking things off your plate, it can free up your time to work on strategic, bigger picture issues.

So reap the benefits for you and your organization. Give your employees meaningful work toward organizational goals. Keep them engaged. And they will be more vested in helping the organization reach its goals.

Kelly Vandever is a leadership and communications expert who helps leaders and organizations thrive in todays attention-deficit, entertain-me-now, wait-while-I-post-that-on-Facebook world.   Learn how opening up, listening intently, and speaking practically can bring you better business results. 

 Contact her by phone at 770-597-1108, email her at kelly.Vandever@SpeakingPractically.com or tweet her @KellyVandever.