Twenty-five hundred years ago a new Chinese emperor took the throne of the Middle Kingdom.  Because he was only 18, he called upon the court’s wisest adviser.

“O learned sage.  O venerable counselor,” said the young emperor, “you advised my grandfather the emperor for many years.  What is the single most important advice you can give me now for ruling my kingdom?”

And the adviser, who was the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius, replied, “First, you must define the problem.”

Certainly sage advice – except most of us don’t have a Confucius to consult.  But we can learn plenty from studying the advice of top CEOs and business leaders.

VI6WFor example, Anne Mulcahy, former Chairman and CEO of Xerox, was asked by Fortune Magazine what was the best advice she had ever received in business.  She said it occurred at a breakfast meeting in Dallas, to which she had invited a group of business leaders.

One of them, a plainspoken, self-made, streetwise guy, came up to Mulcahy and said: “When everything gets really complicated and you feel overwhelmed, think about it this way.  You gotta do three things.  First, get the cow out of the ditch.  Second, find out how the cow got into the ditch.  Third, make sure you do whatever it takes so the cow doesn’t go into the ditch again.”

What a great management tip because when you break it down, it covers just about every situation.   I’d like to share some other gems with you that will help you “define the problem.”

  • Make your calendar your best friend.  As soon as you book an appointment or meeting, choose an appropriate date to prepare for it, and prepare a to-do list for that day.  Allow sufficient time to gather and review all the information and material you might need.  Take time to prepare so you don’t have to waste time in despair!
  • Don’t waste precious time fretting about things over which you have no control. Although taking control of the details and tasks in your life is essential to becoming an effective priority manager, there are things that occasionally pop up over which you have little or no control.  When that happens, don’t fight it; just do them and get it over with.
  • Manage the function, not the paperwork.  Remember that your job is to manage a specific function within the company, whatever that may be.  There might be a lot of paperwork that goes with the job, but don’t let that distract you from your real responsibility.
  • Get out of your office.  Management By Walking Around (MBWA) does work.  You make yourself more approachable.  You get information first-hand.  You find out what’s really happening.  The auto pioneer Henry Ford was once asked why he made a habit of visiting his executives when problems arose rather than inviting them to his own office.  “I go to them to save time,” Ford explained, “and besides I’ve found I can leave their office a lot quicker than I can get them to leave mine.”
  • Delegate the easy stuff.  The things you do well are the things to delegate.  Hold on to those that are challenging and difficult.  That is how you will grow.
  • Don’t get caught up in “looking good.”  Appearances can be deceiving.  Don’t try to act big.  Don’t exclude rank and file employees.  And don’t think you know it all.  Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honest.
  • Learn from the mistakes of others.  You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.
  • Open your ears and close your mouth.  Your associates, your employees, your suppliers, your customers all have something of value in what they have to say.  Listen to the people around you.  You will never learn what it is if you drown them out by talking all the time.  Remember, the only thing that can come out of your mouth is something you already know.  Shut up and learn.
  • Practice what you preach.  To lead, you have to lead by example.  Don’t expect your people to work unpaid overtime if you leave early every day.  Don’t book yourself into a four star hotel on business trips and expect your employees to stay in the motel off the freeway.


Mackay’s Moral:   When you manage to define the problem, you begin to manage. 

About the author Harvey Mackay

Seven-time, New York Times best-selling author of "Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive," with two books among the top 15 inspirational business books of all time, according to the New York Times. He is one of America’s most popular and entertaining business speakers, and currently serves as Chairman at the MackayMitchell Envelope Company, one of the nation’s major envelope manufacturers, producing 25 million envelopes a day.

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