We’ve all been there. We get horrible news, and even worse, it comes as a complete surprise. When it happens you’re always left wondering: “What could I have done to avoid this?”
When I was at eBay some called me Mr. Fix It. But here’s the secret: I don’t like solving problems nearly as much as I like avoiding them. I wrote this post not to tell you how to deal with problems, but to help you be proactive in avoiding them rather than having to react and solve them.
Take this simple recent example. One of the entrepreneurs in my firm was sending me weekly status updates. (I did not force him to do this, but I appreciate that he does it.) I had been away on vacation and I didn’t get one. The next week I didn’t receive one either. I proactively asked him where his status was and he said, “I sent it to you.” We looked into it and discovered that he was sending to a company alias that I wasn’t on.
Had I not checked up, he would have continued sending these weekly reports assuming I was receiving them and probably wondering why I hadn’t commented on any of his communications. Hence, I would have continued to miss all the great information he was sharing in his weekly statuses. While this would not have been the end of the world, if left unchecked, it could have led to a schism between investor and founder. Instead, we solved it when it was simply a harmless miscommunication.
Some thoughts on how to solve problems early—or event prevent them from happening:
• Teach your team that problems are welcomed and that early warnings are also appreciated. It’s much harder to solve problems when you are out of time to do so. Of course, you need to also teach your team how to come up with solutions as well.
• Check-in frequently on the things you care the most about. Have formal check ins and frequent 1:1s, as well as informal and impromptu check-ins.
• Be respectful of other’s time. Communicate early what you need and by when. Obtain a commitment to have people get back to you when needed. If you’re always in crisis mode and changing meetings and times, you are causing massive churn for others on your team. This, in turn, can lead to massive churn for their teams.
• Pay attention to all the signals and clues that exist. I’ve often had to probe deeply with somebody whose behavior, attitude or patterns have changed, and in doing so, I’ve discovered early signs of a problem. Look out for changes in cadence around communication and listen to what other people are saying. Observe body language and the chemistry of the team. If you see something different, it’s likely a sign that something is amiss. As they say, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
• Always do the post-mortem. When you end up with a problem that could have been solved earlier, take the time to debrief the team on how to do better and set expectations for next time.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my career, it’s that problems don’t get better with age. Therefore, always be on the lookout for potential problems and conflicts to surface—and fix them fast. If you inculcate the practice of finding problems and fixing them fast, your job will become far easier, your team will be more productive, and everyone will have a lot more fun.