Solving problems through people

Managers are problem solvers. The best problem solvers rise through the ranks and become organizational leaders. As they rise, the problems become larger until, one day, a career-defining problem outstrips their capabilities. Facing a problem that you can’t solve might be one of the most important career tests. Like failure or significant loss, it teaches you lessons that can’t be learned without experience.

Leaders face many problems that seem too big to solve. This year alone, leaders across industries have struggled with organizational challenges that emptied offices; supply chain failures that left goods trapped at sea; employee resignations that shuttered service delivery; and technology glitches that plunged customers into the dark. Many of these problems were too big to solve … alone. In a recent interview, Mimi Vaughn, (President and CEO, Genesco Inc), observed that these problems can’t be solved in the executive suite, but you can move mountains by motivating people.

Faced with the overnight closure of Genesco’s nearly 1,500 retail outlets as COVID swept the globe, Vaughn realized she couldn’t solve the problem by herself. She needed to solve the problem through people. Her role was to help the organization understand the urgency of the situation and provide a vision for the way forward. But the solutions would come from others. For Genesco, that meant new digital strategies for Genesco’s storied brands like Journeys and Johnston & Murphy; agile supply chain execution to ensure the right inventory was available when customers returned; and shrewd cash management to save the company from what looked like bankruptcy.

The secret to success is letting others into the solution process. That requires frequent communication, clear articulation of the problem, and a vision to see past the problem to the goal. To hear more from my interview with Mimi Vaughn, watch the video. We discuss Genesco’s turnaround, the power of multichannel retailing, and lessons from a recent proxy fight with an activist investor.

Leadership Notes is a blog and video series on leadership.  Through interviews with leaders from both the private and public sector, Johnson examines key leadership issues like empowerment, team development, and cultural dexterity.  The blog also addresses topics such as learning from failure, the importance of friendship, and the role leaders play in developing organizational culture.

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