Finding the Leak: How to Avoid a Problem by Strengthening Your Business

02/09/2017 04:23 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2017

By: Rachel Cooke

Last summer, our air conditioner conked out on a 110-degree day, with 300% humidity. OK – I like drama and poetic liberty… but the story is real. And the moment of breakdown was unquestionable.

When my hero, the repairman, arrived the next day, he advised that our system had been slowly leaking the very essential Freon for months, and it had finally hit empty. When I asked whether this could have been prevented, he said unfortunately not really. Preventive air conditioning maintenance is apparently not really a thing. But it seemed a shame. Had we known of this tiny, persistent leak, we could have prevented a major breakdown. But alas, this warm and grumpy night was simply our destiny.

Why do I share this story? There is, of course, an essential metaphor within. And, dear leaders, it’s this: there is likely a hole in your bucket somewhere. In other words, we all know what broken looks like (i.e., angry customer, failed product launch, budgetary overspend, etc.) – but do we know how spot the tiny leaks? The great ideas that go unspoken, the missed opportunities for efficiency or collaboration, the unasked questions that could have helped avert disaster? Can we spot the holes in our bucket, the leaks in our system?

Yes, we can! Read on for some simple ideas to help guide you toward these holes, so you can recapture the potential you may be leaking:

1. Acknowledge the imperative to find our leaks.

We can’t fix what we don’t believe to be broken. Sure, we’ll put on our cape and tights to come to the rescue of a customer we’ve failed to delight. But what about when our revenue is simply below its potential, because we’ve not invited our customer service representatives (i.e., those who talk to our customers daily) to advise our inventory team? We may not have missed a target per se, but what if our income could be greater? We’re missing opportunities to maximize revenue because we’re not involving the right people in the conversation. It’s a hole. It’s a problem.

2. Let humility and curiosity light our path.

The number one reason that leaders have holes in our buckets? We don’t know what we don’t know… and we don’t always think to ask. Leaders, let’s all agree that our job is not to be the smartest one in the room; our job is to unlock all of the smarts that our teams bring into the room. And this means, simply asking our teams, what’s working? What’s not? Why? What questions and concerns do you have? How can I help move obstacles? How can I help you deliver your greatest contributions? [Side note: Concerned about your team’s willingness to be candid with you? Then please, immediately, download this free Leaders’ Guide to SuperCandor - it will help you to get them dishing out what you need to hear.]

3. Get judgy.

Once you open the floodgates, the ideas will indeed begin flowing. At this point, volume is the name of the game. Focus on gathering a lot of ideas, and statistically speaking, some are bound to be great. The key here is to quickly evaluate and select the ideas worth testing. The simplest framework is a basic 2x2 grid that shows degree of impact (i.e., how much might this actually serve us?) along the vertical axis, and degree of difficulty to implement (i.e; cost, effort, degree of change required) along the horizontal. By plotting every idea on this 2x2, you’ll have a simple, visual capture of your "low hanging fruit." This becomes your starting point.

4.Get testy.

Now it’s time to dive in and test. Sometimes the tiniest tweak in our system or process (i.e., what if we created a shared drive to house the data and documents we reference most often, to avoid recreating the wheel?) can dramatically impact our ability to be faster, better, more innovative, more profitable. So give them a try in a safe and small way – think pilots and prototypes (i.e; can two trusted members of your team experiment with a small tweak for a week and then report back on its impact?) – and then determine which you want to roll out more broadly.

5. Maintain momentum.

Holes don’t appear on predictable schedules. That’s why no one likes a hole. No, holes can appear any time. They tend to start small and expand slowly. And for this reason, every leader must build this dialog into the DNA of her leadership. These real solutions, this SuperCandor, doesn’t happen through a once-a-year survey. These ideas are the outcome of a belief that looking for holes in our bucket is just a part of how we excel in business, everyday.

Do you suspect a hole somewhere in your bucket, dear leader? Start asking some questions, and see what you find.


Rachel Cooke is the founder of Lead Above Noise - a consultancy dedicated to making work work better. Rachel believes that that great organizations are grounded in great leadership. And her passion is to partner with leaders who believe the same, and are seeking simple (but not easy!!) strategies for evolving their work, and in turn, their ability to deliver delight. For more, please visit where you can connect with Rachel and sign up for her email newsletter.

Ellevate Network is a global women’s network: the essential resource for professional women who create, inspire and lead. Together, we #InvestInWomen.

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