The late General (retired) Colin Powell – former Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, and Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – is popular for (among many things) making a statement regarding a leader’s obligation towards peoples’ problems:
“The day the soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”
While the statement addresses soldiers, it is a universal lesson in leadership – leaders help solve problems. Whether it be in a managerial role or as a mentor, leaders help others remove obstacles, achieve clarity on a path forward, and help enable and inspire action.
But one important aspect of leaders helping people solve problems, which seems to be less discussed, is HOW. How can leaders best help others solve problems, overcome challenges, and commit to a plan toward progress?
Personally, when a direct report knocks on my office door or when a mentee sends me a text message asking, “hey sir, do you have a minute to talk,” I’m flooded with conflicting emotions. I’m excited (like Colin Powell) by the prospect that I have their confidence (since they are asking) and have a new opportunity to help; I enjoy that. But I’m also paralyzed by the fear that I may not be the right kind of help that will best serve them. I worry that I won’t be able to add value in the best ways.
So, we see that there is a unique but challenging balance of several factors: (1) authenticity (of the leader’s personality and approach), (2) mentorship-style advice giving and perspective taking, and (3) coaching to help cultivate self-sufficiency in the person experiencing the problem or challenge. This results in a scenario where there is no right answer on how to approach this.
However, trying to learn and practice how to do this better over time, especially as a mentor, I have found a simple but incredibly helpful tool that equips me to guide others through problem-solving, especially when I don’t feel equipped to add the right kind of value: the SWOT analysis.
What is the SWOT Analysis?
Simply, the SWOT analysis (or SWOT matrix) is a strategic planning and management model used to help a person or organization identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) related to business competition or project planning as modeled below. Within each quadrant are a few broad questions one can consider when using this analysis. Though it’s designed as a business competition or project tool, the SWOT analysis can support thinking through any sort of personal or collective decision, problem, or issue that needs to be analyzed. The top variables, strengths and weaknesses, focus on internal origins – attributes of the person or team. Conversely, the bottom variables, opportunities and threats, focus on external origins – attributes of the environment that will influence the process or outcome.
Considering all four variables helps someone (or a team) think through both ‘what is reality now?’ (strengths and weaknesses) and ‘what could be in the future?’ (opportunities and threats) from a positive, productive lens as well as a realistic, risk-assessment one.
How Leaders Can Use It
Clearly anyone can use this analysis for themselves. But potentially even more powerful, leaders can use this framework to help others – whether they be direct reports, members on the team, clients, or mentees – to talk through issues at hand.
Personally, I have used this framework to help direct reports and mentees think through personal work-related issues like preparing for and processing through anxiety over moving to a higher managerial position with more responsibility for a larger team, considering a new project idea to propose to their boss, and even during career management conversations on creating the path they desire their career to take.
The SWOT analysis is a versatile tool that can help frame, simplify, and clarify any problem-like issue at hand, which makes this a beneficial tool in almost any scenario. Though you can (and should) consider the unique ways that you can best implement this tool, here are a few considerations on how I leverage it during conversations:
- I tend not to introduce or explain the SWOT matrix to start the “problem-solving conversation.” I let the other person explain the situation, the context, and many of their emotions surrounding it – I let them get it all off their chest. This also helps me fully understand the problem before I transition the conversation to a “diagnosing phase.” Then, I ask if I can offer a few questions to discuss. Assuming a ‘yes’ response, I casually ask four questions, one along each variable: “So, what are some strengths that you feel you bring to the table here?” “Do you see any gaps in your capabilities or things you’re going to need to develop to succeed here?” And so on.
- I try and make the person identify several thoughts around each variable, often three to five each. For some people or variables, it will be easy; others it may be challenging and even a little painful. But I try to match the quantity of thoughts captured in all four variables. This prevents naturally optimistic people from failing to thoroughly think through weaknesses and threats, and pessimistic people from failing to see strengths and opportunities.
- As the person shares, I jot down their thoughts in my own SWOT matrix on a scratch piece of paper.
- Once we have fully explored their thoughts along all four variables, I then show them the matrix I created and introduce the basics of the model.
- From there, we move into the most important part of the conversation – sense-making. In looking at the filled-out matrix with their thoughts in front of them, I ask them to analyze what they see and share some reflections. I can ask, “Based on these comparisons, what are you now thinking regarding this problem or issue?” Or “How does viewing this issue in this new way help you to start thinking about what you can or should do?” And “When looking at this matrix, what do you think you should do next? And after that?”
My aim by the end of the conversation is that the person has a clearer sense of what the full problem is, why it matters, and what they can (or should) do moving forward.
The Benefits of This Tool and Process
The SWOT analysis is just one tool. It’s a model, meaning it casts light on particular things and inherently ignores others. It is not a perfect aid. But, in leveraging this tool for a while in trying to support others in solving problems or make decisions, I have found several important benefits both in the model and the process of using it.
- It’s simple. The 2×2 matrix is easy to memorize, easy to recall amidst a “hey ma’am / sir” conversation, and easy to capture on a notecard during the discussion. It’s also easy to explain to the other person, not inundating them with complex theoretical thinking or some robust academic model.
- It helps prevent you from adding “too much value.” We naturally want to be the hero by solving the problem for the person and offering the advice they are missing (“here is what you need to do…”). However, we often miss the mark in our advice because we jump into solving the problem before fully understanding it first. Or we unintentionally make the conversation about us (“I’ve been successful, you’re asking me for help; let me tell you what I would do here.”). Using the SWOT analysis keeps the attention, responsibility, and critical thinking with the other person; we merely serve as a guide.
- It dives into deeper sense-making. It looks at different angles of the issue, and ones that are often competing against one another. It takes the conversation beyond just identifying the problem (read: complaining) to clarifying why it matters and what steps we need to take to solve it and move forward.
- It builds self-sufficiency over time. Think of the old proverb about giving someone a fish to eat versus teaching them to fish to feed themselves. Using this tool and guiding a conversation around it can equip others to think in these ways for themselves and ultimately able to use it in the future. In time, they become competent, confident, and capable of solving their own problems in the future…and maybe even helping others to as well.
Leaders and mentors help others solve problems. I hope this SWOT analysis can be one supporting tool to enable you to do it a bit more effectively and efficiently.
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