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4 steps to becoming a great problem solver

COMMENTARY If you've ever heard the expression, "That's why you make the big bucks," then you were probably on the hook to solve a tough problem. Indeed, the ability to troubleshoot complex issues, fix troubled organizations, beat bigger competitors or successfully manage crises, is highly valued in the corporate world.

Just ask Thomas Horton, the American Airlines executive who was named chairman and CEO of parent company AMR on Tuesday, the day it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Horton got the job because of his track record dealing with thorny union and regulatory issues. And now AMR's restructuring, how well it's positioned when it emerges from bankruptcy and the future of the iconic airline is entirely in his hands.

Throughout your career you'll be called upon to solve problems. And how well you do that will, to a great extent, determine how high you climb the corporate ladder. I guess you can call me a born troubleshooter, since that's what I've spent most of my career doing. And whether it's turning around a product, an organization or an entire company, the successful process is always the same.

When your time inevitably comes, here are four key steps to take:

Tell key stakeholders what to expect from you. That's why having a process like this is so important. Even if you've never dealt with a specific type of issue before, you still need to do your best to identify all the key stakeholders and let them know more or less what to expect from you: your process, roughly how long it will take, and what you'll need from them. Don't under- or overcommit. Just be honest and, if necessary, provide a range, key factors and contingencies.

Find out what's really going on. Not only is this the most important step, it's also where even the most seasoned executives and consultants go wrong. You must get a candid, objective and complete picture of what's really happening. To do that, you've got to have access to anyone and everyone and ask each person who else you should be talking to as you go along. In general, all meetings should be one-on-one and in confidence. That's the only way folks will be completely candid. Some situations require sourcing of customers and others outside the company. How you go about that and the questions you ask must be carefully coordinated and approved for obvious reasons.

Identify your team and determine what needs to be done. Once you have a complete picture of what's going on, you can formulate your views on what needs to be done, identify the core team that's going to be involved going forward, bounce your ideas off them, come to consensus, then present your plan to the key stakeholders in the process. Be aware that folks may be surprised by what you come up with, so make sure your ducks are in a row while remaining open to feedback and what's likely to be an iterative process.

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Execute. Once you've assessed the situation, determined who your team's going to be, come up with a plan and gotten approval from the stakeholders, then comes the really hard part: execution of the plan. This is where the rubber meets the road. Unfortunately, lots of troubleshooters or problem solvers are strategists that aren't so good at actually getting things done. If that's you, then you'd better at least be a strong leader who can motivate and manage his team. Just keep in mind, if you fail here, you've failed, period. That said, it happens. Learn from it, grow from it, and don't make the same mistakes next time. And yes, there will be a next time.