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How Top Executives Turn Problems Into Opportunities, And You Can, Too

If Twitter’s cofounders hadn’t thought on their feet during a crisis many years ago, the much beloved app probably wouldn’t exist today.

How Top Executives Turn Problems Into Opportunities, And You Can, Too
[Image: Shutterstock]

As a business leader, challenges are an everyday part of life. Sometimes you may feel as if you’re just barely keeping your head above water, but often these are the times when you learn the most about leadership.

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In fact, navigating through these choppy waters can actually hone your skills as the captain of your team.

Instead of despairing, look at these squalls as opportunities to learn, change, and grow. Every challenge and every problem, big or small, carries an educational silver lining if you know where to look.

Turn problems into leadership opportunities with the following advice from leaders who have been right where you’re standing:

Think of Yourself as a Problem Solver

Great leaders should look at themselves as full-time problem solvers. It might not be in your job description, but it’s undoubtedly a crucial aspect of your job as a leader. You might think of yourself as the designated hitter for only the biggest and most high-level issues, but for great leaders, the opposite is true. You should also be available to troubleshoot everyday matters, from disagreements in the office to an unhappy client.

“There’s a series of problems that you have to confront every day that you need to solve,” says Glenn Hutchins, managing director at Silver Lake Partners. “So you need to think of yourself as a problem solver all the time, as opposed to having one big obstacle you have to solve.”

Working through these issues, you can start to see where your company needs help, where it’s excelling, and what steps you need to take to get to the next level.

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Know When To Pivot

Playing it safe can only get you so far in your business. You need to push yourself to change and take risks in order to jump the next hurdle or meet the next challenge. Especially in today’s ever-changing climate, to stagnate is to risk an eventual death.

“I try to push myself to change all the time,” Ted Virtue, MidOcean Partners CEO, told me. “I change offices and change my desk, just to make sure I’m in a new environment and always thinking about how I can do things differently and how I can make sure we don’t get stuck in a rut.”

Without pivoting, we wouldn’t have many of the companies we currently enjoy today. After all, microblogging service Twitter started life as a podcasting service called Odeo. When Apple’s iTunes service got into the podcasting business, they knew the more established company would crush their app.

So the team put their heads together and pivoted, and today we tweet along with our favorite TV programs and political leaders. If the leaders behind Twitter had continued along on the same path, their story would have ended as a lesson in failure instead of a lesson in the transformative power of pivoting at the right moment. Their great obstacle was actually a blessing in disguise.

“The one thing that’s clear in this business that I learned very early on is if you’re not adapting and changing, you’re dying. It’s either grow or die,” Virtue says. “So always think about growing, because the day you become complacent, as I’ve seen in every industry I’ve financed, you start to deteriorate.”

Listen to What Others Have to Offer

You’re not the only one with great ideas. Someone on your team or even someone you just met in an elevator might have the key to unlocking the professional challenge you’re facing at the moment.

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This is certainly what happened to Alison Brod, CEO of Alison Brod PR, when a chance encounter in an elevator led to starting her own public relations company and representing Burberry’s new fragrance line. She wasn’t necessarily looking to break out on her own and start her own shop, but when the opportunity arose, she grabbed it with both hands.

“Go out and take every opportunity. Every single opportunity you have to take,” Brod says. “My goal was to have every single person that I needed a phone call away. And that’s what it’s really about, it’s about accumulating people who can connect you to other people.”

The great idea your company needs might not hit you in a bolt of lightning one day, but if you listen closely to other people, you just might find they hold the key to your company’s future. Being a great leader isn’t just about directing others, it’s also about listening to what they have to say. It’s about recognizing the strategic value of others, even if they’re not the CEO of a company or your organization’s most valuable client.

“In PR–or in any career–it’s a giant chess game. You want to be a good person, yes, but you also need to figure out how to get what you want,” Brod says. “Sometimes it’s about being strategic. Give people what they need and you’ll get what you need back from them.”

Learn From Your Mistakes

Mistakes are more than failures, they’re also opportunities for change and growth. Not every opportunity will work out the way you planned, and great leaders will use these moments to learn and gain new skills.

“If it doesn’t work, that doesn’t make me a lesser person or a failure, it means that didn’t work. It’s time to do something else,” Ken Langone, cofounder of Home Depot, says. “When you’re in the risk-taking business to the level that I am, not everything you do is going to work. Where you really lose is when it doesn’t work and you start to be abusive to yourself about your quality and your ability.”

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Even when they fail, great leaders believe in their abilities. Acknowledging and learning from mistakes allows you to lead by example, and encourages your team to see mistakes not as the end of the line, but as the beginning of growth.

Being a great leader means tackling obstacles and navigating your ship, even when the skies darken. If you listen to every voice, learn from your mistakes, and never stop problem solving, you’ll turn tough challenges into great opportunities to lead.

What do you think? How do you turn obstacles into leadership? Share in the comments!

Skiddy von Stade is the founder and CEO of OneWire, the premier destination for employers to connect with high-quality finance talent. Skiddy is also the host of Open Door–an exclusive interview series with influential leaders across the financial services sector and beyond. Connect with Skiddy and OneWire on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. ​