Lean Into Hard Problems

Bill Campbell, a legendary mentor and executive coach to many of Silicon Valley’s biggest achievers died last April. During FORTUNE’s recent Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, a few of his mentorees paid tribute to his impact on their lives and the tech industry.

One was Emil Michael, SVP of business at Uber. He shared one lesson from Bill who he remembers as tough, but caring. Campbell taught me to “be brave” about things like layoffs during difficult times. “You need to lean into hard problems because they won’t go away,” says Michael.

This is one of several leadership lessons from Bill Campbell – reminding us to go big or go home. (See FORTUNE article here.)

This term “lean in” existed well before Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg started using it to encourage women to embrace challenge and risk in the workplace. Traditionally “lean in” has been used in the context of sports to mean, “to shift one’s body weight forward or toward someone or something.”

Solving Problems

This story started my grey cells working overtime. In many companies I have seen just the opposite. Many leaders lean away from the most difficult – and most impactful problems for their organization. They avoid them, minimize them, find fault with the reason, and put as little effort into it as possible – so maybe it will go away. This rarely happens.

So what does “lean into hard problems” mean?

I like how Seth Godin defines it. “You lean into a problem, especially a long-term or difficult one, by sitting with it, reveling in it, embracing it and breathing it in. The problem becomes part of you, at least until you solve it. You try one approach and then another, and when nothing works, you stick with it and work around it as you build your organization and your life.”

In other words you fully embrace your problem, live with it, breathe it and work it until you’ve achieved your goal. When you can’t wait to develop connections and possible solutions with the problem, then you’re leaning into it.

As owners and leaders, we are faced with problems we don’t know how to solve all too often. If you tend to lean away at the first sign of trouble, you will most surely not end up with the best solution. Here are some problems my clients have needed to “lean into:”

  1. Serious illness disables the #2 leader in company – no replacement in site.
  2. One of three brothers in a family business not suited for his position.
  3. 4 Partners at odds on company strategy: continue to develop or sell?
  4. National distributor must decide on growth path – organic or acquisition?
  5. National SaaS company unclear on new product development path.
  6. Manufacturer must make a call to shut down product line or invest more in it.

These are examples of very IMPACTFUL problems looking for the best solution.  With continued focus and practice of coming back and seeing the problem through (leaning in!), your instinct will be to figure it out no matter what obstacles stand in your way.

What problem do you have today that needs leaning into?  Contact me to discuss your possible solutions.

Copyright 2016-2020 David Paul Carter.   All rights reserved.

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