One Decision Every Leader Must Make

By: On June 12, 2018

one decision every leader must make“You change management people are all the same. If my friends from GE were listening to this conversation, they’d say it was the biggest crock of shit they’ve ever heard.”

Scott was a little frustrated. And salty. He’s a CEO facing a big challenge. The clock is ticking. His board expects results. We were in his office, trying to figure out how to get his top leaders to move forward on a big, bold move he had decided to take.

“Those GE guys,” his rant continued, “they just point to the hill and tell people we’re going to take it. That’s what they call leadership!” I may not be the smartest guy in the room but I could tell that he was contrasting that approach with the one we had been discussing, one where we would encourage key leaders to weigh in on the decision, to voice their concerns and influence the outcome. “This just seems… soft,” Scott said. “We’re not running a democracy here. I have to be able to make some decisions around here without getting approval from my own team.”

I couldn’t agree more. Leaders absolutely should make decisions. The one they must make most often, though, is one they rarely think about: How should we make the next big decision?

Conflict in leadership teams is often decision-making in disguise. Handled well, that kind of conflict makes everyone and everything better because it forces people to learn from each other, to deepen their understanding of the business, and to begin to trust the team’s ability to move forward. Decision-making conflict is a play that every leadership team must master. Mastering the decision-making play starts – like any play – with setting it up well.

You’re not ready to run the play until you’ve clarified the decision-making rules you’re going to use. That choice is always the leader’s to make, just like coaches in many sports get to call plays.

After Scott finished his tirade, I tried to help him see this point.

“The question isn’t whether you’re a soft, enlightened leader or a hard-ass,” I said.  “The question is which decision-making approach does your organization need you to use right now?”

In a world that has bought into the cult of the strong leader, this is a point we have to constantly remember: It’s not about you and how you’re viewed. Our job as leaders is to serve those around us, no matter what that requires us to do or how we’re viewed by one end of the leadership spectrum or the other. We create the conditions where our team and organization can be their absolute best. This helps the organization be who it was created to be. It enables people to have joy in their work. Of course, it also enhances the bottom line.

For the next half hour, we explored Scott’s decision-making options as coined by David Bradford and Allan Cohen.

decision-making Cohen & Bradford

  • Scott could make the decision autonomously and communicate that he expects others to carry it out. There are times this makes total sense. Emergencies, turnarounds, and times when a decision is highly confidential or beyond the ability of anyone else on the team are great times for autonomous decisions. Effective leaders are careful to communicate the whys behind an autonomous decision. That way, others can both explain the decision and extend that thought process to decisions they face in their roles.
  • Scott could be consultative, asking for input from others but reserving the right to make the final decision. This approach is also appropriate in some circumstances, especially when a leader has most of the expertise or her team isn’t ready to fully engage in decision conflict yet. A friend of mine recently took a C-level job in his company and is pulling together a team from across the organization. They aren’t developed enough as a team yet to make some of the immediate decisions together, but their input will be very important to my friend’s ability to make good choices. And even an advisory role provides a sense of ownership for his team members.
  • Scott could make the decision jointly, where the whole team (or a subset) shares decision rights. This approach makes sense when no single person has a monopoly on expertise and when deep ownership by several players will be required to implement the decision successfully. Leaders can always place a time limit on these decisions and reserve the right to revert to a consultative decision if the team fails to reach a conclusion.
  • Scott could delegate the decision to a team member or subgroup within established boundaries. Do this when a decision doesn’t require your personal attention and as a way to demonstrate trust in your team, especially if there is a specific team member in need of a confidence boost.

Team leaders often worry about giving up control and having to live with decisions they don’t love. That’s a fair concern. But leaders always have the right to draw boundaries around decisions and to establish a limited set of non-negotiables. In extreme cases, they can change decision styles mid-play, though that’s the last resort because it exposes the fact that the play is busted.

When leaders share less power with their team than they’re capable of handling, they unintentionally undermine the team’s ownership of the organization’s future and hinder the team’s development. But when leaders share more power than the team can handle, decisions can go horribly wrong and the team’s confidence in itself falters.

On the other hand, when leaders choose the best decision-making approach for each given situation – and can explain why they chose it – the decisions will be sound. Better yet, the team will gradually grow in its confidence and capability; it will be able to propel the organization toward making the impact it was created to make in the world.

That’s why selecting the best decision-making approach is one decision every leader must make.

Be Bright

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