It’s easy to fire the sour employee who brings others down and difficult to turn the employee into a friendly one. It’s easy to ask an angry customer what you can do to make him or her happy (while intent on getting the person out of the way). The hard work comes when you bother to ask how she can help you prevent the problem. It’s easy to hire an SEO expert when your website isn’t getting traffic and less straightforward when you want to know if your customers believe you have a compelling offer and an appealing site.

The ability to not just solve a problem but to turn that problem into an opportunity is the mark of true leadership. It may sound trite or obvious, but once you dig in and try it, you’ll find it requires nuanced thinking and old-fashioned humility. To sit down and intentionally think about the problems you have in your business, to write them down, and then to do something with the list is more of an effort than most (admittedly busy) leaders are willing to make. But imagine the growth that could take place if you strategically focused on reversing value--on taking the things that diminish value in your business and turning them into things that add value.

The Unintended Consequences of Tackling Problems

Remember when Walgreen’s and Safeway began selling reuseable shopping bags in an eco-friendly marketing ploy to get consumers to stop using plastic ones? Those thin, cheap plastic bags were a pure expense that diminished value. By encouraging consumers to switch to reusable bags for as little as 99 cents each, they not only eliminated an expense but generated revenue. Think of it this way: Even if the profit margin on that revenue is small, it pays dividends because the customer re-uses that bag repeatedly, reducing the need to use plastic bags during subsequent visits. A recurring expense item (true problem) turned into a recurring revenue stream (true opportunity).

Another example is the legendary story of Comcast. The company was one of the earliest adopters of Twitter for customer support. Like most cable companies, Comcast had long been a punching bag for its disgruntled customers. When the company noticed that those customers were taking to social media, it responded in a big way through social media as well. And what resulted was a horde of positive publicity in the blogosphere, such as this one from 2008 and another one year later.

Sometimes People Surprise You

In the interest of full disclosure, this lesson of turning problems into opportunities hit home recently when I reaped the secondary reward of being disgruntled. And hopefully, will as well.

The reason you're reading this right now is because I recently wrote a post on my personal blog critical of a few articles featured on’s home page. I had no relationship with the publication; I had never met nor spoken with anyone at Inc magazine or And I had no bone to pick; it was simply a blog post expressing my thoughts, inspired by a conversation with a friend about magazines that cover entrepreneurship.

My post was forwarded to Inc.'s leadership team. Within days, I spoke with two people at the top of the masthead. I was thoroughly impressed by the questions they asked, how carefully they listened, and the fact that they didn't get defensive or offensive. I came to learn that Inc. was actually working on the very issue that was the subject of my post. To my surprise, I was invited to become a contributor to

I was turned from a critic to a collaborator, from someone who publicly diminished the value of their company to someone who can--I hope--publicly add to the value of their company. The folks at Inc. could have simply solved the problem by thanking me for voicing my concern and letting me quietly go away (and I probably would have). But its leaders instead responded with initiative, empathy, and sincerity, and tried to turn my critique into an opportunity.

Make a Problem-Planning List

Imagine what you could do if, alongside your strategic planning, you and your team engaged in problem planning--if you made a list of your company’s problems and intentionally decided to not just solve them but to turn them into opportunities.

I’m guessing you’ll find a gold mine there, not just for your company’s growth but also for your leadership.