The trajectory of most careers starts with problem solving. Good engineers, faced with a well-defined problem, can usually do an effective job thinking through how to best solve the problem. The best engineers find the 10x solution – 10x more scalable, 10x more maintainable in one-tenth the time. Good marketing people, armed with an adequate budget and clear goals, problem-solve around messaging or marketing program choices. Good finance people take the characteristics of the business and think about the best deployment of capital to achieve the desired outcomes. Good salespeople are problem-solving around how to navigate obstacles to persuade decision-makers. We all start our careers honing skills around being effective problem solvers. I spent the early part of my career problem-solving as an engineer, problem solving as a financial analyst and problem solving as an early entrepreneur. And some of the best individual contributors at BloomReach, and at every organization I’ve seen, are incredible problem solvers. The CEO job involves a ton of problem solving. And usually, by the time the problem reaches you, it’s a big hairball. It’s a decision where the path is unclear and where the data is murky (a bet on a new market or new product). It’s a complex, people-oriented problem (a manager or team not performing or two leaders not getting along). Or it is a problem that has inherent short-term vs. long-term trade-offs (losing a customer that might be very valuable vs retaining that customer at the cost of longer-term priorities).
Great problem solvers who continue to advance in their careers, are constantly broadening the scope of the problems they can take on. At any startup, leadership opportunities often outpace the people that the startup has to take on tough, large-scope problems. As I look at the people who have advanced quickly at BloomReach we’ve seen them grow from task-oriented problem solvers to outcome-oriented problem solvers. On the customer-success side, they move from “I can complete the analysis” to “I will own the customer’s success end-to-end.” On our engineering team, they move from “I can build this component” to “I can lead this project.” Being an outcome-oriented problem solver provides enormous benefit to one’s manager. There is nothing an oversubscribed manager appreciates more (or should) than someone on the team who says “I got this.” And has the credibility to have earned that trust.
Being a great outcome-oriented problem solver is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for true leadership. Leadership means both being a problem solver and a problem creator. The inherent nature of a well-executing team is that they are focused on solving a problem. But what if the problem definition needs changing? What if you have a team chasing a revenue goal when they should be chasing a customer satisfaction goal? What if you are executing really effectively against a narrowing addressable market? What if your organizational alignment inherently is misaligned with the goals of the company? Those are all times to step in and create problems for the teams involved.
Problem creation has been important at BloomReach. At times, we’ve created problems to drive a change of direction – sometimes by hiring a new exec, sometimes by personally selling a customer who might be outside of the qualification criteria, sometimes by reorganizing a team, sometimes by radically changing the product goals and sometimes by materially changing budget allocations. Many of these steps create more problems (at least in the near-term) than they solve. Often, they materially disrupt the execution cadence of the organization. They invite significant dissent among key team members. But they are key to driving a team or an organization to raise the bar, think differently and adapt to a dynamic world. I’ve seen cases of leaders going down the problem creation road too far. They create so many problems that they set their teams up for failure. They are unsympathetic when a team member asks for help. They become unapproachable.
Many of the best leaders are great problem creators, inspiring teams to achieve what they never thought possible and adapt in ways that can appear radical at first, but become second nature over time. And they are also great problem solvers, taking ownership for the toughest problems around and helping teams navigate them. The problem-creation gene is a wholly different gene than the problem-solving gene. Problem solvers want to get through the task list. Problem creators want to create a new one. The best leaders get both genes to co-exist in harmony, artfully drawing on each at just the right time.