You're Not a Great Leader Unless You Pass the Big Issue Test

Last Updated Apr 18, 2011 2:34 PM EDT

Passing the Big Issue test doesn't require making brilliant strategic decisions. The Big Issue test is all about your employees. Here's why.
Every day you make hundreds of decisions, most minor, a few major. Dealing with major problems can consume your entire focus, especially when the future of your business rides on the outcome.

That's when a Big Issue is most likely to pop up.
Say you run a factory. A component shipment just arrived and the defect rate in tested samples is too high. Normally you would reject the shipment and let the vendor inspect and sort, but you need to meet a ship date for your largest customer. Sorting in-house means shutting down other operations. Do you eat the cost and the delays on other jobs and satisfy the customer, or do you miss the ship date?

You sit staring at your desk, knowing no matter what you decide you're kinda screwed...

... and that's the moment an employee walks in and says, "I really need to talk to you." You automatically start to say, "Let me get with you a little later..." but you look up and see he is visibly upset.

He continues. "I used to be able to call our babysitter to make sure she got the kids home safe from nursery school, but our lunch period was changed to an earlier time this week so now that doesn't work. My supervisor won't let me leave the line to call, so all I can do is worry until we take our break..."

Inwardly you wince. You empathize but you have your own problems to deal with: Deciding whether to eat thousands of dollars in cost or upset your biggest customer.

That's when you take the Big Issue test: Can you deal with the employee and his problem as if it was a Big Issue? To you it's not a big issue; to him it is a very Big Issue.

Give his problem the attention and consideration he feels it deserves and you pass. Assume your issue is more important and brush him aside -- no matter how politely -- and you fail.

Every employee perceives issues differently. To a shop-floor employee, break schedules, interpersonal problems with team members, lack of proper tools... all can be Big Issues. To you, losing a major customer or incurring thousands in additional expense is a Big Issue.

Both of you are right.

Great leaders treat employee issues, no matter how "small," as Big Issues. Great leaders give employee concerns the same attention they give "larger," business-critical concerns.

When an employee comes to you with a problem, no matter how minor it may seem to you, to them it is a Big Issue. You only pass the Big Issue test when you can view problems from the employee's perspective.

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Photo courtesy flickr user Brian Hillegas, CC 2.0
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    Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.