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Establish Yourself as a Problem Solver to Elevate Your Career

What my high school teacher taught me about being proactive

This post was first published by Better Marketing on Medium.

What is an important career lesson?

What this grade 13 science teacher said became my biggest career and life lesson — but I didn’t know this at the time. It was the one thing he urged for us to remember upon joining the work world. And warned that not following it was the fastest way to lose credibility.

I questioned the relevance of his advice because it was going to be years before I would join the workforce. I was still anxiously waiting for university acceptance letters. Not about future clients, bosses, or colleagues to impress.

A high school teacher’s advice

He said:

They don’t have a class on this in university, so I’m telling you now. When you get out to the working world, don’t, I repeat, don’t ever go to your manager with a problem that you don’t already have three solutions for.

I wasn’t ready to accept his advice then so it sat on a shelf in my brain. Since then, however, I have applied his career saving tip every moment of my corporate life.


How to be solution oriented?

I overheard two colleagues talking about a new software defect and waltzedover. I was concerned but pretended to be casual and asked about their animated discussion. They simultaneously responded with, “We found a bug, but we have some solutions we are testing.” I smiled, said, “Awesome guys,” and walked away reminiscing about my grade 13 teacher.

The best outcome of being solutions oriented is earned autonomy. When we show we have a plan and a fix, others develop confidence in us. With credence, we are entrusted with decision-making power.


Why focusing on the problem is ineffective?

Imagine a different scene. Such as when I approached the two in conversation, if they said, “We have a problem” period. I might have suggested solutions in an effort to help. They would have felt robbed of their freedom to solve their problem, their way.

The result from complaining

There is one common complaint among my girlfriends about their partners when they voice a problem. Instead of being able to converse about it, they’re told how it could be solved.

This scene from the movie White Men Can’t Jump illustrates my point. A couple in bed are locked in a loving hug. The woman stirred from sleep and turned to him. She said, “I’m thirsty.” There was no hesitation. He jumped out of bed and returned with a glass of water. “Here you go honey,” he said. Instead of thanking him, she accused him of not hearing her at all.

We see then, we will get an unwanted solution when we vent without thinking. If we want to exchange ideas, then we have to prepare our thoughts on potential ways to resolve the situation.

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” 

Barack Obama

Here are ways I have had success with establishing myself as a problem solver instead of a problem giver.


How do you stop worrying about the things you can’t control?

Deliver the possibilities

We often pat ourselves on the back when we find issues. We falsely view the act as important. It’s natural to do this; we believe it shows off our analytical ability. We tell ourselves, we are trying to make things better.

A different way to look at this is from the listener’s point of view. On the receiving end of the problem, the listener does not see critical thinking demonstrated. They just hear problems they likely already know about.

Avoid talking about the impossible

I have been both a problem giver and problem solver. The problem giver in me dumped all the frustrations of my life on my partner. I never knew how exhausting it was to listen to a problem giver until I was in his similar shoes.

A colleague came to me with a problem about her project. She was visibly upset. Beyond the first few minutes from this messenger of bad news, my empathy turned off. I stopped hearing her, even though I was trying to. I interjected with some options. Which were all met with, “That won’t work.”

The feeling of this will be impossible to fix sunk in.

We ended that conversation without a solution. Without even somepossibilities to pursue. I couldn’t help but question if she was the right person for this job.

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

Warren Buffett

Talk about what IS possible

A different colleague shared similar challenges the next day. Except, he started the conversation refreshingly different. He shared that he had been thinking about a problem that was affecting our project’s productivity. He had come up with a few different ways we could resolve it.

He asked if I would be able to talk through the pros and cons of each to decide the best option. He walked away with an even better solution (his words!) than when we first started our talk. And I walked away very impressed by this mature professional.

“If you’re not stubborn, you’ll give up on experiments too soon. And if you’re not flexible, you’ll pound your head against the wall and you won’t see a different solution to a problem you’re trying to solve.”

Jeff Bezos

Avoid losing trust from the listener

In a past supplier meeting, the team lead shared his project updates with me. He discussed the project’s difficulties blaming the organization’s processes, and his personal troubles at home.

Even though I was concerned for his well-being, the conversation proceeded without any planned resolutions. So, I walked away concerned that he would be unable to solve the project’s challenges.

Gain trust from the listener

The next day I called his manager, and the discussion was 360 degrees different. She summarized the key issues in less than 30 seconds and jumped ahead to the solutions they were testing.

She asked for feedback. Her prep work and questions allowed us to tweak the plan, which turned the situation around. My concerned mood lightened. This manager, representing her firm, regained my trust.

How do you focus on solutions not problems?

1. Centre your discussion on the solution

  • Begin conversations with the end in mind. When we can see what the solution is, it can facilitate talking about the path to results, instead of the problem.
  • Listen for the sign that the other person is solving our problem. This is an indicator that we have focused too deeply on the problem.
  • Raise the problem only once there has been time to dream up possible resolutions.

2. Use these phrases:

  • Could we talk about some potential solutions for this recurring problem?
  • I have some ideas on how we can solve a current challenge.
  • We just encountered an issue and I’m working on a few options to share with you tomorrow.

3. Avoid these phrases:

  • There are so many things that are wrong with [insert individual name, team name, product, workplace].
  • This issue happened again.
  • I have a problem.

Summary of how to become a problem solver

We can adjust our approach in order to spend more time discussing potential solutions. We can use positive language to establish ourselves as trusted partners to our clients and employers. A confident, solutions-based attitude will improve our credibility with colleagues, clients, and leaders.

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