Problem solving skills in the boardroom

Problem solving skills in the boardroom

What exactly is it about senior executives that sets them apart from everybody else? We're talking about the rare quality or qualities that elevate them above the rest of the workforce. Clearly there's a lot more to reaching the boardroom than studying hard, working long hours and waiting for the big promotion opportunity.

The career pyramid gets very narrow towards the top, and as such, only the very brightest and best can reach the top of the pile. To become a chief executive or managing director you need to have leadership skills, vision and drive in abundance, but you also need that extra-special creative spark.

Very often, it is the problem solving skills, the ability to meet difficult challenges head on and make the right decisions under pressure that separates the wheat from the chaff. Nobody can see the future and envisage what is to come, in business or in life. But in many ways, senior executives are charged with doing just that, and this can be a most unenviable role.

It is their job to identify opportunities and risks, anticipate future trends and outline the strategic direction for their organisation. Should they succeed, they - and the people who work for them - will be both applauded and rewarded. But where business leaders choose the wrong course of action, and things don't turn out as planned, it will be seen as their responsibility - and their head ready for the chop.

Making the right decisions

When it comes to problem solving in the boardroom, business leaders should think in terms of goals and barriers. What are their short and long-term targets for the organisation, and what obstacles are likely to stand in the way of success? Senior executives require the vision and clarity of mind to identify these challenges, then select the course of action that delivers the most favourable outcome.

Usually, the overall aim in business is to maximise profits for the organisation, and as a consequence, shareholder returns. But in order to achieve this goal, it will be necessary to achieve a series of micro-targets. To raise profits, the company may need to improve service quality, boost productivity, enhance customer loyalty, engage with employee retention, and identify new efficiencies to reduce costs.

There can be many different ways of achieving the same end result, and the job for senior executives is to identify the optimum approach in each scenario. They need to foresee where obstacles may stand in the way of success, and think creatively in order to remove them. Where this is not possible, they may need to devise entirely new ways of working around a problem.

Effective problem solving skills

Sometimes the ability senior executives have is to solve problems quickly - reaching the same conclusion other people would make, given all the relevant information, but in a fraction of the time. This can give their organisation the edge in business, as it can be more responsive and agile, and able to act while rival operators are still contemplating the best way forward.

While leadership styles may vary, top business leaders are able to quickly detect potential problems, carry out the necessary research and analysis, and then come to a decision. They must have great business instincts, and courage in their convictions. But they must also be pragmatic enough to realise they will not always have the answer, and there is a need to seek assistance in this process.

Senior executives need to call upon the expertise of everybody who works for their organisation, and sometimes even people from outside it. Individuals who have a specialism may be better-placed to judge the merits of a particular decision, and as such it makes sense to consult them. The managing director or CEO's job is to decide upon the final approach, and take responsibility for their decision, but they can build knowledge about the particular challenge before reaching this stage.

Similarly, senior executives may be able to harness technology solutions to improve the decision-making process. In the digital age, organisations are collecting and storing increasing volumes of data, which can be analysed to draw business insight and intelligence. It is up to decision makers to interpret this data and plan the appropriate course of action accordingly.


The decisions taken by senior business leaders are likely to have a bearing on all stakeholders within the organisation - including board members, employees, shareholders and customers. As such, there is great responsibility resting on their shoulders.

They need to use the resources available to them - including data and the expertise of other people - to shape their decisions, but sometimes their main asset will be their own skills, judgement and instincts. Over time, they will be assessed against the outcomes of their actions or inactions.

Future career prospects, and even the continued viability of businesses and organisations, may be reliant on the decisions made by company bosses. As such, there is no doubt that senior executive roles are highly pressurised. It requires a little extra for professionals to succeed in such a role - so do you think you have what it takes?

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This article originally appeared as Problem Solving Skills in the Boardroom on the UK Robert Half blog.

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