Developing Your Credibility as a Problem-Solver (pt. 1)

CredibilityWell, I’m going to continue my rant on problem solving (no surprise here, eh?). If you haven’t read my posts on problem solving as an economic generator or on problem solving as a process, please do so now. Shucks, you may even want to read my post where I argue for shifting your entire economic philosophy towards problem solving.

This post is going to be about establishing your credibility with your problem-solving skillset. Or more accurately said, your problem solving competency. Because competencies bundle things up like skills and other abilities into packages of inter-related concepts that need each other to be substantially more. It’s the whole sum-is-greater-than-the-parts idea.

Let’s dive in.

First question: Are you a credible problem-solver? I ask this because if you aren’t, you must either become one or get out of sales. Period. Buyers want problem-solvers, not problem creators – or even do-nothing Do-fors (as in “do this for me…”).

But before you run down the path of answering that question, let’s define what it means to be a problem-solver first. I like the way that the school that always loses to Stanford Cal-Berkeley defines the problem-solving competency as a starting point. They identify the following concepts:

  • Identifies problems
  • Involves others in seeking solutions
  • Conducts appropriate analyses
  • Searches for best solutions
  • Responds quickly to new challenges

Each of these elements, and their inherent processes, create a platform that any sales professional can transform into their credibility as a problem-solver. If you can do all of these things really well, you are most likely a credible problem-solver.

But here is where it gets tricky. If you are not able to do all of those things really well, how are you supposed to be able to establish your credibility as a problem-solver? Do you have to be born as a gifted problem-solver or can you become one over time? Do you attend a class? Or is it just a matter of getting slammed a few times experience before you figure things out?

Bonus questions for leaders: Do you have a team of credible problem-solvers? Can you develop a team of problem-solvers from scratch or should you just rely on the “special” people on your team? How do you equip problem-solvers? How do you recruit problem-solvers? And are you getting in the way of successful problem solving with your behaviors and/or inaction?

I believe that if we are going to effectively answer these questions, we have to know how to develop the problem-solving competency. And I use three pathways for developing a competency: training, coaching, and mentoring.

Let’s talk about training first. My definition of training is “putting your best into others so that the transfer of raw knowledge can become a polished skill.” CRITICAL to this definition is the idea that knowledge must become skill.

Academics can (and will) argue that knowledge is its own domain. What a bunch of rubbish. I live in a world of business reality APPLIED science, so knowledge that sits without being applied is useless. And explains why so many training experiences suck (waaaaaaay too much knowledge dumping, not enough real-world application). The development of a skill rests on knowledge, so learning about problem solving as a knowledge domain MUST be trained (essentially through instruction with increasingly difficult tests) until it becomes a skill. Which is why I only want to talk to certified technicians when fixing my computer.

Now, let’s talk about coaching. My definition of coaching is “bringing the best out of others so that natural ability can become refined talent.” CRITICAL to this definition is the idea that natural ability must become talent.

Coaching is the opposite of training. It is not about projecting. It is about reflecting. Reflecting the player’s current ability level – not projecting the coach’s. It is about getting the player to achieve the peak of their own potential. This is where being “born” with certain abilities is often brought up. But we can’t ignore the impact of neuroplasticity in learning. In other words, the brain is able to reshape itself through the stimulation of learning. In terms of coaching, you are making natural pathways stronger and more robust/refined. In terms of training, you are creating new pathways to release latent abilities – that coaching can then take over to reinforce and grow.

This is why sales managers HAVE to coach their sales reps, and sales reps HAVE to receive coaching. Whatever talent the sales rep hopes to display must be coached in order to hit their potential. Even the world’s best athletes understand this principle. The most advanced athletes are not given new information as much as they have their ability-based talents consistently challenged.

Pause. I have to add a major point of clarification to my definitionSeagull of coaching. Coaching involves observation, motivation, and developmental feedback. It MUST have all three of these components. Observation and motivation without feedback is cheerleading. Observation and feedback without motivation is the proverbial seagull – you fly in, poop, and fly away. Motivation and feedback without observation is blind management. Otherwise known as the annual performance review (just give me my bonus rating and stop saying anything else… please).

Now back to my rant.

The third component is mentoring. My definition of mentoring is “Sharing your best with others so that unprocessed experience can become articulated wisdom.” CRITICAL to this definition is the idea that experience must become wisdom.

Maybe it’s because I am from Hawai’i, where we use very different words to describe what you know (and subsequently give our elders an extra dose of respect for their mana’o), but I have always bristled at the use of the word “experienced.” As in, “he’s an experienced sales rep” or “I have a lot of experience in that area.” Experience, on its own, is meaningless. I want to get to the wisdom that the experience produces. Another way of explaining this difference is to ask, “Are you a sales rep with twenty years’ worth of experience or a sales rep with one year’s worth of experience twenty times?” Yeah, you know those guys, don’t you…

This idea of wisdom that comes from experience is fundamental to completing the development cycle. Skills and talent can get you a lot of places, but credibility – real, authentic, tangible credibility – comes from having the wisdom that goes with all of your skills and talent.

Gold nuggetWhich is why I appreciate the blogs of people like Bob Terson, Dick Ruff, and Charles Green so much. They drop decades of wisdom into their posts like little nuggets of gold. And if you are going to be a credible problem-solver, you MUST have your own pocketful of gold. Which will most often look like you knowing when – AND WHEN NOT – to solve a problem. Did you catch that? Let me say it again. Developing your problem-solving competency isn’t just about getting everything that training and coaching can provide. It’s about learning from mentors who can show you their scars (and facilitate the healing of yours) and help you see the patterns in the experience/DNA of different problems and recognize when to use your skills and talent. And when to simply hold. Or even walk away.

This last bit – wisdom – is the critical piece to transforming your problem-solving competency into a bastion of credibility. Knowing when and when not to solve a problem will protect from those futile attempts that no one wants to see you even try to solve. This is especially true of your customers, because they don’t want to follow you down the same path. But if you can take your wisdom and become the mentor of your customers, helping them avoid poor decision-making and trying to tackle obstacles they should simply move past instead… well, you have done something special, haven’t you?

So I ask you one more time: Are you a credible problem-solver?

I mua. Onward and upward.

By Tim Ohai

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3 Responses to Developing Your Credibility as a Problem-Solver (pt. 1)

  1. Owen McManamon says:

    Hi Tim
    This is excellent; you clarify one of the most important things we must do to become a true partner with our customers. This is achieved by learning the meaning and abilities required to become an effective ‘credible problem solver’.
    Thank you

    • timohai says:

      Thank you, Owen. It’s a shame that so many organizations don’t teach their sales people (or IT, or Supply Chain, or Finance…) more of what it actually means to be a problem-solver. It seems that problem-solving is THE differentiator in today’s economy. Would you agree with that statement?

      • Owen McManamon says:

        Hi Tim
        I agree with your statement. We live in an environment of low market growth in many business sectors; one way to grow is by taking market share from your competition. This will only be achieved by aligning with our customers and problem solving is a key differentiator in today’s economy.

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