Let’s face it: making big decisions is hard. If you’re in a position to single-handedly make a strategic call that could result in failure (which is basically all strategic calls), that’s a lot of pressure. But if you’re a leader, or aspire to be one, that’s exactly where the rubber hits the road. The dividing line, the difference between leaders and staffers, is the ability and willingness to make decisions.
When I conduct employee reviews, I ask staffers to fill out a self-assessment form that includes the following question: “Do you consider yourself a leader or a contributor, and does your answer align with your aspirations?” Answers to this question usually spark great conversation during the actual review. When I look at the folks who consider themselves to be contributors and aspire no further than that, all of their explanations really boil down to two things: 1) They lack confidence in their ability to make difficult and course-changing decisions, and/or 2) They don’t want the accountability that comes with making decisions.
That’s an understandable position. Decision-making is not for everyone. It requires the ability to look at a fraction of the data you wish you had and then add in historical context, domain knowledge, your sixth sense about your customers and what’s important to them, your enduring vision for your product and your company, business and stakeholder needs, the competitive marketplace, and then trust your gut. According to The CEO Genome Project, a 10-year study of what qualities make the most effective CEOs stand apart from the rest, and its authors’ summation in The Harvard Business Review, the number one trait that predicts a CEO’s success is their ability to be decisive. Note that, in this case, “decisive” does not describe the quality of the decisions, merely the leader’s ability to make confident, actionable decisions very quickly.
Let’s take a look at decisions on the product level. With product development methodologies like Lean Startup, the need to make huge product/innovation decisions on a regular basis is lessened. Why? Because the object of the game, in these modern methodologies, is to understand and enumerate the biggest assumptions upon which your product’s success is reliant, and then systematically test these assumptions as quickly and efficiently as possible. So, rather than make a decision with your gut, you can let your customers guide you. That agile-with-a-lowercase-a approach allows for constant adjustment and reduces decision anxiety (and analysis paralysis).
Still, sometimes we’re called upon to make a larger strategic decision, something that cannot be iterated upon or tested easily in the given timeframe. At times we’re the ones who have generated the options from which to choose, so we’re at least familiar with the inputs. At other times, we’re called upon to make a decision, cold, from options others have gathered and presented to us, and part of our challenge becomes seeing through others’ assumptions and asking the right questions.
At those times, newer leaders (and less-effective established leaders) can easily fall into the decision-by-committee trap. Let me present this from my own experience:
Earlier in my career, I was called upon to become Adopt-a-Pet.com’s first product manager. Even though I’d been performing a lot of the functions of a product manager for years, when we decided we needed to put a formal title to what I was doing, I suddenly lost confidence. At the same time, we brought in several new hires, and for the first time those hires were not people from the non-profit realm or contractors, but people from the startup and tech world…in other words, people who were used to working with experienced product managers. Impostor syndrome reared its ugly head, and as a result, I was secretly convinced that any decision I made would reveal to my new team members the depth of my inexperience and my (largely imagined) incompetence.
This, coupled with a genuine desire to make every member of my team feel heard and valued, led me to adopt a decision-by-committee strategy. I would call meetings, present what I saw as our options, allow others to add new options to the mix, and then engage in long discussions about the different possibilities. Usually these meetings ended without a commitment. We’d agree to all think about things and reconvene for more discussion. Sometimes we’d even take a vote, but more often, we’d cock the gun a million times and never pull the trigger.
During this time, I wanted to believe that my team respected me for being so inclusive and open. What I ended up realizing, before too long, was that the opposite was true. Of course, everyone wants to be heard and feel like their opinion is valued. But when all is said and done, people look to a leader to take in all of the points of view, weigh them against business goals and other context that individuals might not have top-of-mind, and then to be decisive.
This was a revelation for me. Even more of a revelation was the realization that, looking back, in almost every case I did have a preference. I absolutely knew what I wanted to decide, but I kept it to myself for fear it was the wrong move. The skills and the intuition were inside me, and all I needed to do was to trust myself, be okay with failure, and stop imagining what others might be thinking about me.
And so, this is the advice that I want to share with new and aspiring leaders who might be asking themselves, “How do I know I’m making the right decision?” The answer is an emphatic YOU DON’T. But if decisions were always 100% scientific, and there were always clear right and wrong paths, then leaders like you and me wouldn’t be needed.
I’ll wrap up with another wonderful tidbit from the HBR article (which is titled What Sets Successful CEO’s Apart, but this should be comforting to leaders at all levels):
But once a path is chosen, high-performing CEOs press ahead without wavering. Art Collins, former chairman and CEO of Medtronic, told us: “Employees and other key constituencies will quickly lose faith in leaders who waffle or backtrack once a decision is made.” And if decisions don’t turn out well? Our analysis suggests that while every CEO makes mistakes, most of them are not lethal. We found that among CEOs who were fired over issues related to decision making, only one-third lost their jobs because they’d made bad calls; the rest were ousted for being indecisive.
Everyone makes good decisions and bad decisions. The important thing is to make a decision. Don’t outsource to a committee. Gather all the inputs you need, solicit data and opinions from trusted stakeholders. And then, pull that trigger.