What’s The Silver Bullet?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

This was originally posted in June 2011

Solutions KeyWikipedia describes a silver bullet as, “any straightforward solution perceived to have extreme effectiveness.” The phrase typically appears with an expectation that some new practice will easily cure a major prevailing problem.  I get the “silver bullet” question from many of my clients; mostly the senior leaders who are working on many issues at one time and are focused on trying to grow their businesses, while at the same time facilitate a work environment of self-motivated and engaged employees.

So, when there are one or two issues with one or two employees that seem to be taking up their time, they will (jokingly) ask me “what’s the silver bullet?”  Although they ask in jest, I know that they truly wish for that straightforward solution that will completely and quickly resolve the issue.  And, as a coach, it would be nice if I could provide that to them!

We definitely live in a “silver bullet” society.  We all are seeking the quick solution; that behavior or practice that will “cure” our current problem or challenge. Most of the time when I get this question it is because of a particular issue with an employee, or, an issue with several employees.  And, the question arises because my clients (who, again, are senior leaders with many things on their plate) desire to have the issues resolved quickly and efficiently so that they and their employees can go about being productive and focusing on their work.   However, when dealing with people I find that there are as many silver bullet solutions as there are individuals who need them.  Yet, that response is not particularly popular with my clients (or most senior leaders, I am sure).

What I find is that, although there are few silver bullet solutions when dealing with individual employee issues, there are certainly things that can be done to support dealing with these issues in a more efficient manner.  As leaders, time is money so when there is a lot of time spent on dealing with a single employee issue, that is time away from the business.

Two things that I stress with the leaders I coach are delegation and early intervention.   Usually when a senior leader (Vice President, C-Suite level) is in the details of an employee situation, it is because they have not delegated the details to the appropriate person.  They need to delegate the resolution of that situation to their direct staff and trust that their direct reports are able to handle it.  And, if the situation is with one of their direct reports, they need to intervene early and be straightforward about the “issue”.

Early intervention is often the “straightforward solution” that Wikipedia describes as a silver bullet.  If you, as a leader, notice that something is off with one of your direct reports and he or she is not pulling their weight, you should not put off talking to them about it and assume it will go away.  It usually gets bigger.  Intervene early and let them know what you’re observing and what is “off”, per your observations and expectations.  Then follow-up frequently enough so they know how they are progressing (or not).  An early intervention and a few quick check-in calls will take a lot less time than letting something go and allowing it to grow into something bigger.  That will typically end up taking a lot more of your time.   Using early intervention and delegating appropriately to your direct staff are workable solutions for those “unique” issues that arise, as well as those issues that arise repeatedly from employees.

For example, a CEO of a mid-size company was having an issue with the COO.  The COO was not effectively leading and mentoring one of his employees so the CEO had to step in and take the time to be a mentor to this individual.  This became a topic of one of our coaching conversations because the CEO was taking significant time doing the mentoring that his COO should have been doing.  When I asked him why the COO wasn’t doing it, the response was, “he never has and it’s just not a strength of his.”  These two men had been working together in these roles for the past five years and this was an expectation that the CEO had of his COO; yet, it was never happening and the CEO hadn’t dealt with it.

Another factor influencing this situation was that the COO was further along in his career stage so more established in his methods of managing others.  These methods did not include mentoring; however; this was an expectation of his role.  Had he known this many years earlier, it likely would have been easier to amend and deal with than now, five years later.    To effectively amend the situation in a mutually agreeable manner took some dedicated time, planning, and also some shifting of responsibilities between the CEO and COO.

This same CEO was also running into an issue with one of his vice presidents.  It was a similar situation in that the vice president was not meeting expectations in a certain area.  This was a new situation and one that required immediate attention if it were to be dealt with efficiently.  Unlike with the COO, this time the CEO did not ignore the situation but took the “early intervention” approach.  Although it required some time and frequent follow-up, it was amended successfully and did not linger.

Although these examples are brief, they illustrate that although each individual situation may require different approaches, the “silver bullet” solution can equate to the timeliness of addressing the situation.   Confronting something directly and early on can prevent it from lingering.  It can also prevent it from getting bigger than it needs to be. It is the straightforward solution that has extreme effectiveness, or, the “silver bullet”, as described by Wikipedia.

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