Making the Tough Calls

March 12, 2010

Today, I’ve finally decided to get off my butt and start contributing again. The leadership team at my last company achieved a successful exit in late 2008, and since then I’ve pursued a couple of startup ideas and have taken some time to enjoy life. I’m now itching to get back into the mix and I’ve also decided it time to start sharing what I’ve learned along the way. This is the first of hopefully several postings on what it takes to be an effective leader. I hope you enjoy it.

One of the most important traits of a leader is the ability to make tough decisions. Have you ever sat in a meeting where a topic is being discussed with two or more opposing views and no conclusion? I’ve sat in far too many in my career. There is nothing more frustrating than an endless debate. Everyone leaves dissatisfied and it doesn’t take long before no one wants to go to another meeting. If you are in this situation it is because the leader of your organization is not making the tough calls.

The reality of being a senior executive is that you are paid to make decisions and you will be judged on how well you do it. One thing I don’t think many executives understand is that ultimately they get the recognition or the blame for how their organization performs. Organizational performance is almost always closely associated with how effectively the leader made decisions.

Many executives think they can avoid making decisions by simply surrounding themselves with a strong team. Sometimes this is true, but if you hire good people they will want to explore all sides of ideas and opportunities. Leaders have to be careful that the best debater, or the person with the most data, doesn’t simply overwhelm the rest of the group. A strong leader will make sure all sides are heard. I often take an opposing side of an argument, even when it isn’t what I believe, just to make sure I’ve looked at all points of view.

Beware of the meeting where only one person is really prepared, or the opposing voice isn’t in the room. Politically astute up-n-comers love to use this tactic to get their way. Leaders need to cut it off at the kneecaps.

Sometimes the best decision isn’t the one supported by the data. Another thing senior executives are paid to do is to make the controversial call. I’ve often said that if you find yourself agreeing with industry analysts it is probably because they got their input from people just like you. I always look for where I disagree strongly with the analysts, because that is usually where the biggest opportunity can be found.

The speed of the organization is also a factor of how effectively the senior people are making decisions. People can’t act if they don’t know they have support. If the executives take a lot of time to make decisions the organization will move slowly. If the leader doesn’t make decisions it may stand still. If you make decisions quickly it buys more time to adapt when you are wrong.

Oh yes, expect to be wrong. Strong managers love to believe they are infallible, but the reality is we all will make wrong decisions. The best leaders know how to recognize a bad decision and take action to correct it.

Early in my career I took on a product management position with a Fortune 50 company. I soon found myself in endless cross functional meetings. A cross functional meeting is one where each organization discipline (sales, marketing, manufacturing, engineering, etc) is represented. Everyone in these meetings was at the same level and the meeting chair would moderate discussions related to the purpose of the team. Many of these discussions were endless, for example sales always wanted more product features and service needed to contain cost. It didn’t take me long to get very bored and frustrated.

After a couple of weeks of going to meeting after meeting where nothing was decided I chose to try to change the game. I went to the meetings and started making decisions, as if I was in charge.  Soon after this the attitude of everyone in the meetings improved and we started getting things done and building momentum. At the same time I received a number of anonymous email and voice mails expressing concern for my wellbeing and cautioning me to be careful because “they” (I never did find out who they were) could hold me accountable. What these people didn’t understand is that I wanted to be held accountable. I was amazed later to watch these same “anonymous” people take credit for the good decisions, and deny anything to do with the bad. It’s not a perfect world, but don’t let that stop you from making a difference.


One comment

  1. Paul,

    Great thoughts, as always. Thanks for sharing your experience.


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