What The Boss Expects From You: #5

Dead Weight

He wants you to present him with a solution for every problem.

As you may know if you've dropped in this week, I'm in Los Angeles doing "business," which is pretty much what everybody does out here. It's a funny place. Between driving and taking meetings in restaurants, people are at their desks, I would estimate, about 34% less of the time than in an other major city in the nation. Add to that the X-Factor involved in the time difference with the rest of Planet Capitalism and you just have a different thing going on out here. And if you think people are busting their humps after 3 PM in LA, the way the East Coast guys are doing at that hour in New York or Chicago, you've got another thing coming. At 4:00 PM in Los Angeles, the sense of being off the clock is almost palpable. I'm not saying they don't do anything. I'm just saying I like the vibe.

Anyhow, that made the phone call I got from Larry even more annoying. It came at 3:45, when I was playing a new game from Big Fish on the computer and checking my email in a desultory fashion. Larry is in New York, so he was working late, good for him, blah blah blah. "Stan," he says, and I can hear in his voice he's in some kind of freakout about something, as usual. "I want to give you a heads-up about something." Now, this also bugs me extremely. I hate heads-ups. A heads-up is something people use when they didn't tell the boss early enough about a terrible thing for the boss to do something about it. I have told my people that yeah, I want to be informed if something is going to happen, but I would like to know about bad stuff early, not in a heads-up at the end of the day. So Larry, for one, keeps offering them to me, which shows he doesn't listen, among everything else.

"So anyway," says Larry, and presents me with a very big problem that could create a very bad precedent in our company. You don't care what it is. I could make up some stuff about it, but the bottom line is that there's a situation, and if we don't dig ourselves out of it we're going to come out looking bad, and probably lose some money. Close your eyes and imagine a situation like that for yourself, and that's what I'm talking about.

"So Larry," I say to him. "Don't you think we should step in and do something about it?" And there's this silence, and then he says, "That's why I called you."

See, that's what I don't like about Larry. I mean, I'm not going to fire him or anything because he's a pretty good manager and what the hell. I don't fire people unless they completely spit up on their shoes. But he's definitely on my B-List. Because all Larry does is present me with problems. He never comes to me with a problem in one hand and a gleaming, shiny solution in the other. And that's what I want. You know why? Because I generally don't know any better than Larry what to do about things. Just because I'm the boss doesn't make me a genius, obviously. As the guy closer to the scenario, HE's the one who should have a few ideas. Why dump it all in my lap?

I've got a few people working for me around the country. The guys I like are the ones that say, "Hey, our building out here is about to blow up, but I think if I cut the red wire first and then the green wire I can defuse it," and then all I have to do is say, "Sure, do that, and hurry." And then there's no explosion and I can go back to doing what executives do. I think you know what that means.

So I told Larry what to do, and he did it, and fortunately things worked out okay. That doesn't change the fact that when Larry calls next time, I'm going to be presented with a problem that has no solution that I'm not going to provide for it. And when I see "Larry" on my Caller ID, I will not smile.

I complained about this to Peter, who works for me out here. He has quite a few reportees reporting to him, too, in the reporting structure. "I know what you mean," he said, sipping on the Starbucks double espresso with some kind of foam that everybody has surgically attached to their hand out here. "Last month I sent out a memo to my whole staff telling them that I would kill the next person who sent me an e-mail that ended with the phrase, 'How would you like to handle the situation?' These people are paid to come up with creative solutions, not just pass along problems to me!"

I like the way Pete is developing as an executive. One day, if he keeps on this track, he may present me with the ultimate solution to any boss's biggest problem: finding his own replacement.

18 Comments Add Comment

You are totally right on this, Bing. So much of good work behavior is knowing when to bother the boss and when not to bother the boss. Of course, if you have a Crazy Boss, you might be sunk no matter what you do. But rational bosses DO notice and appreciate it.

Every seminar I've been to advises you to be a problem solver, not a problem maker. Those who can solve problems will get ahead.

A Starbucks double espresso is, indeed, an essential sign of a promising up-and-coming executive.

So I've been told.

Bing, I can sympathize with your position. I know I would get testy if someone on my team attempted to drop a problem on my lap without a possible solution. However, I hope you'd agree that if your team member comes to you for advice when they have several possible solutions, you have a responsibility to help coach or mentor them through.

I hope Larry got that message loud and clear. Pete's gonna be a happy guy!

Mark, not only do I like your avatar, I also agree with you. The solution presented to me can be a lame one, or a buffet of stupid things, or even smart ones. It's the attempt to solve, instead of simply laying a fetid pile in my lap, that I appreciate.

I'm in complete agreement with what you're stating in this blog... it's a lesson that I learned early on in my career from a boss that told me: "I didn't hire you to simply identify the problem, I'm expecting you to fix it. Don't come back, unless you have two viable options to go along with the problem."

I think your expectation is very reasonable, and if you don't communicate that to Larry, you've become the great enabler. Larry needs to grow in his career; be sure to point out to him your expectation.

I would ask Larry what he would do in your shoes every time he comes to you. Then I would applaud any ideas (or help to turn them in the right direction) so he feels empowered to offer solutions and act on them. I dont see how he can be considered a "good manager" if he doesn't approach problems with a solution in mind or is afraid to give opinions for resolution. Managers generaly reproduce copies of themselves and if he continues down his current path you will simply have a group of Larrys escalating from one management level to the next until someone is reached that wasnt cloned from Larry.

Understanding the frustration of having someone on your team come to you and expect for problems to be solved by others is unacceptable. However, we must communicate exactly what is expected. When Larry comes to you with another dilemma, your response should be "and your suggestion(s) is/are...." Perhaps Larry feels insecure at problem solving and you have made it easy for him not to think of solutions. Suggest to Larry to read The One Minute Manager... he'll get the message.

That is so the west coast. Except I'd argue only the Important People are away from their desks that much, the rest of us commute 1-2 hours a day and live off Starbucks (or Coffee Bean, which you have to try if you're still out in LA). Worst traffic in the world, but best weather. You take what you can get I guess.

My problem in working with high level execs is I did a good job at staying out of their hair, and not even bringing problems to them. Instead I'd bring the problem with solutions to their subordinates and get them to all agree on a compromise they were willing to implement. I thought I was doing a great job at staying out of my boss's way. What did I earn? The man can't remember my name and delayed a potential promotion for a year. So there is no winning with executives sometimes...

A classic. However, I'm curious why you did not think to throw the problem back at Larry. How is Larry going to learn how you expect him to behave if you don't tell him. I know what you are thinking...he should know/do this already! Perhaps, but not everyone is a natural "A" player. Some folks need to be coached.

I do not see how Larry was wrong.

Not all people can solve problems like this. Some people actually look to their superiors for guidance. Some people just can't think fast enough or stop thinking about the problem to come up with a solution.

If Larry had a solution to the problem, what would be the point in calling Bing for an answer? I think that Larry should be praised for giving Bing knowledge of the problem. This can stop a person from making a problem an even bigger problem. Taking risks and tackling problems is not for everyone. But I do not see why this should make Larry look bad. At least he was honest, which is more than I can say for some managers.

As always, Yadgyu of Harkeyville, TX, makes an interesting point. Not all people are problem-solvers and that's what they pay a boss for. And Larry SHOULD be praised for bringing me problems, rather than sweeping them under the rug. But all that only goes so far. Part of what your boss expects of you is that you have a superior understanding of stuff that's closer to the ground. Your role should give you a different perspective that the boss, one that could be useful in solving, not just presenting, problems. And even a lame attempt is appreciated. In the end, Larry won't be squashed because he offers up no wisdom. But he won't be promoted, either.

I'm also adding another comment here because unless I do there will be 13 comments and I am trixadecaphobic.

Maybe Larry has had a bad experience from solving a problem and being chewed out for not asking permission first. Many supervisors want ownership of any and all decisions. You know that bosses are crazy sometimes.
One boss I had micromanaged and I would have been canned if I made a decision without his approval. Now I have a boss that considers my problems mine to solve, but doesn't give me the authority to solve them. Crazy!

Haha thats all good but me my boss can't expect me to solve ecerything because I am my own boss

What if... you don't give any authority to the "Larrys" in your company because, although they are intelligent, creative and hard-working, you have absolutely zero trust in them and are terrified of getting in trouble with *your* boss who knows less than, and screws up more often than, "Larry"?

All hail Big Fish Games!