Be Humble Enough to Learn from Everyone

Managers and executives often suffer from the belief (the conceit?) that they should have all the answers, should know how to do everything, and should be the smartest person in the room. The problem is they become bottlenecks, assume they’re the only ones with all the answers, and will often require associates to carry out some mistaken order that, at best, results in some wasted time, but at worst, can be illegal or cause hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.

The best leaders (almost) never make these assumptions. They ask for the answers, they rely on the experts to know how to do things, and if they’re the smartest person in the room, they know they’re in the wrong room. They ask their associates for advice and encourage them to find the most effective solution to the problems.

A beautiful library. A true leader will also read and learn from history.
A true leader is also well-read, getting wisdom from people who lived before his or her time.
That means a true leader is someone who’s humble enough to learn from everyone. He or she knows they don’t have the answers, but will ask the ones who do. And they don’t try to hide the fact at all.

This was a habit I developed early on in my career. When I was asked to help solve a problem or make a decision, I would always say, “Show me. Take me to where the problem is and physically show me.”

Whether it was a system, machine, or paperwork issue, I asked the other person to show me what the problem was. As they showed me, I would ask “What do you think we should do to solve it?” I didn’t always have to agree with their answer, but it was a way to at least open the debate.

One of my favorite examples happened when I first got to Robroy, and I was saddled with an ERP system that seemed like a terrible purchase. I concluded that it was a bad system, and was all set to scrap it and go back to our old ERP system.

But Billie Traywick, our Controller, sat me down and told me what the problem was: That the people using it didn’t know how to use it correctly and were finding workarounds, which created more problems. She showed me the extent of the problem and offered up the solution.

So, over the next several months, she wrote the procedures and guidelines and educated people on their use. It saved the system, saved us hundreds of thousands of dollars, and helped us function much more efficiently than if we had gone back to the old way of doing things.

Had I assumed that I had all the answers and worked with a limited amount of information, I would have wasted all that time and money that the company had put into the system before I ever arrived. And we would not have grown and excelled the way we did.

Trust Your People to Have the Answers

Do you know who knows more about the machines in your factory? The people who use them every day. They know more about your processes, and they’re intimately involved with your products. These are the people who have the answers to the problems you’re dealing with.

The person who is closest to the problem is the one who generally has the solution. But they don’t believe they have the right or the authority to speak up. You have to give them a platform by which they can do it.

In the leadership classic, In Search Of Excellence, author Tom Peters extols the principle of management by walking around. If you can embrace this practice and walk around your factory, asking your employees what they’re working on and what problems they see, you can give them the platform to be heard.

If you hear about a problem happening on your floor, go right to the station where the problem is happening, and ask the associate to explain it. Ask them what they recommend for a solution. Have them explain it. If it sounds like a good one, set the wheels in motion to solve the problem. Make sure the associate gets all the credit and praise when it succeeds. And if it fails, you need to take all the blame (since you were the one who approved such a bone-headed decision in the first place).

Of course, this is not a universal principle that everyone closest to a problem has the right solution. There are people who just don’t have a sense of ownership for the outcome. Or they’re not emotionally invested in its success. And sometimes, the person just has a “let it all burn” attitude, and might actually offer a bad solution if not ignore the problem totally.

And of course, you might have someone in the position who is a tinkerer, for want of a better word. They won’t take you to a permanent solution, they will just continue to tinker. Not because they’re bad people or bad at their job. Rather, they feel that a process or a product has to be perfect before they’re ready to launch.

It’s never good enough, and they’ll tinker and tweak, trying to reach a state that will never come. You just have to launch and fix the problems as they come and be willing to let something less than perfect go out into the world.

In those cases, you have to put on the “do it my way” hat and make the decision to allow a person to pursue the solution, or decide on the best solution yourself. It can be a tightrope walk at times, but you’ll learn how to recognize the different solutions and opportunities with more experience.

I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business, including pivoting within their industry. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

Photo credit: Free-Photos (Pixabay, Creative Commons 0)

Author: David Marshall
I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.