Sound decisions are a hallmark of great leadership. But, that doesn’t make decisions, such as whether to terminate a member of the team or share an employee concern with your own leader, any easier. How leaders handle these decisions varies, but one thing remains certain: you simply can’t spend your time avoiding tough decisions.
A reporter once asked Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, “How did you become so successful? Walton replied, “I have made a lot of good decisions. The reporter then asked an important follow up question, “How did you learn to make good decisions?” “By making a lot of bad decisions,” was Walton’s reply.
When you consider why some leaders are successful and some are not, the difference between a successful and unsuccessful leader is often directly linked to the choices and decisions they make. Being promoted up the ladder often takes many years of consistent, sound decisions. Leaders can fall from grace and be fired over just one bad decision. Unfortunately, our experience in coaching more than 500 C-Level leaders has shown that more managers have had their careers ruined for the decisions they did not make versus any one bad decision they did make.
Some of the difficult decisions leaders may need to make include:
- Determining if she should terminate a member of her leadership team?
- Deciding if he should hire a new employee who was publicly terminated from their last position?
- Deciding when to include which Board members or stakeholders in a decision, if at all?
- Deciding whether to coach and counsel an employee or let the employee correct the performance problem on his own.
- Determining whether to advise his boss or HR about an employee concern or handle the problem on his own.
- Whether to tell her boss, the CEO and/or the Executive Team about a problem in her department.
Leaders often make decisions based on a variety of factors:
Past Experience and Knowledge: The leader has made past decisions in the topic area and those decisions achieved the goal.
Gut Instincts: This is what leaders use in the absence of hard analytical support. Example: a leader hires someone who is clearly not the best qualified candidate because his guts tell them the person can do the job.
Vision and Values: A leader’s values can help him make decisions quickly. Either the decision takes the leader one step closer to his vision and values or the decision moves them further away from success.
Information and Data: Data is raw information. When data is combined into something meaningful, the analysis provides valuable information for making decisions.
Source: For some leaders, the individual who provides them with information may make a difference in what decision they make. Some sources are more credible than others.
In the last few weeks, we have worked with several C-Level leaders who struggled, but ultimately dealt with tough decisions successfully. What made these leaders great leaders was their ability to process a lot of information and then make these tough decisions quickly. Each of the decisions in these difficult situations dealt with direct reports of the leader who were undermining the success of either the leader or the executive team. In one incident, the leader had an inappropriate relationship with a direct report. In a second incident, a leader told members of her team to withhold information or lie to her boss. In a third situation, the CEO terminated an executive because the leader focused on their own silo and refused to work cross-departmentally with other members of the executive team. In all of these situations, the leader quickly made the decision to fire their direct report because their behaviors undermined the vision and values of the executive team and the company.
The following 9 tips will help leaders make better decisions more quickly, especially when the decisions seem difficult:
Generate options: Determine the best solution and then develop a second or third option in case the first option doesn’t work. People who think they only have one or no options to choose from often make a bad decision, knowing as they make the decision that there’s a high possibility for error.
Perform a Pro-Con or Cost Benefit Analysis: Lay out a range of options and determine the pros and cons of each possible decision and outcome.
Acknowledge you have bias: Anytime we are involved in a decision, there is a good chance we are biased. Biases helps us to feel emotion and see patterns or outcomes that we want or don’t want to see. This is like the person in their 50’s who gets divorce so he can rekindle a high school or college romance…only to find out later that the person he knew 30 years ago changed.
Get feedback from a non-biased third party: If you have ever watched Shark Tank, the television show where budding entrepreneurs pitch their great business ideas to a group of the world’s most successful business owners, you have witnessed this point in action. People who don’t have the same vested interest in the decision have a better ability to look through a lens that isn’t distorted with emotional or past experiences. In the decisions referenced above, the CEOs involved their HR team, attorneys and an outside consultant before making the decision.
Publicly debate the decision: If you want to test the soundness of your decision, engage in debate with people who will be impacted by the decision or people who are opposed to your decision. The debate is either going to give you more confidence to move forward or it will create the need to develop another option.
Blow up and publicize the decision: Imagine that your decision is going to be printed on the front page of your local newspaper or written about in an internet blog. Will others reading about your decision look at your decision as being a good choice that stands the test of time?
Determine the right thing to do: Standing behind a decision that everyone agrees with is easy to do. Standing behind a decision that everyone is against is what great leaders live for. When it comes to doing the right thing, honesty and full disclosure will seldom go wrong. John Wooden, the legendary basketball Coach at UCLA said it best: “In life, there is a choice you need to make in everything you do…so keep in mind that in the end the choices you make, make you!”
Have guts and make the decision: I believe that most leaders get themselves in trouble by taking too long to make a decision, or not making a decision at all. In other words, many leaders hope the problem will go away on its own. Theodore Roosevelt said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing to do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.” We agree.
Have a contingency plan: The best decisions, even ones where you followed the above 8 points, sometimes go wrong. It won’t be fatal if you have a contingency plan and options to put into action.
Making a decision that everyone likes and supports is easy. Making a decision to discontinue a product or service that people have invested time and energy into, or firing someone that is well liked in the company, are tough decisions. Leaders get paid to make tough decisions, and great leaders have the ability to make these tough decisions quickly.