Do I go to the gym or do I bank the extra sleep? Caf or decaf? Take the train or drive? Go out or eat in? We make decisions—consciously and unconsciously—all day, every day. As a business leader, making decisions can be tough, particularly when you know that your choices will affect board members and company leaders, employees, customers, and other stakeholders.
It’s no wonder that we’re sometimes frozen into inaction and can’t make the tough calls — the process can be crippling.
Growing up, one of my favorite idioms wielded by my family and friends in the Midwest was “fish or cut bait.” As you can maybe imagine, this phrase more or less means, do it or don’t but act now.
Thinking about this phrase now, I believe it captures a much-needed mindset within a leadership role. A quick decision, based on solid reasoning and intuition can save money, stress, and energy. Jack Welch calls wishy-washy bosses who procrastinate on decisions “last-one-out-the-door” bosses. These types can be brilliant leaders in many ways, but if you’re unable to make tough calls, you’ll never quite reach your potential—and neither will your company.
But great leaders aren’t just swift decision makers who make tough calls on a dime—they also have a process they follow before pulling the trigger. The more a leader follows this protocol, the faster and easier the process will become over time.
Here are the steps to making tough calls I like to follow:
- Triangulate the information you have. To wrap your head around an issue, you have to get perspective with the facts, but you’ll need more than just data. Seek out the opinions of others you regard highly and wrangle all these different parts to get a good look at the issue.
- As much as possible, get the team aligned. It’s so important to rally your people behind you when making a big call. Big decisions, in particular, should be a conversation, not a dictatorial mandate. You must explain why the subject is important to them: survival of the company, more revenues, competitive advantage. Even if, ultimately, you have to make a choice not everyone agrees with, they will at least understand the reasoning behind that decision.
- Do a gut check. Jack talks about leading with guts and your gut. To make tough decisions, a leader must have the guts to go for it and the gut instinct to know what’s best. Ultimately, though data is an important factor, a leader should never make a decision that their intuition would advise against. It’s true that leaders, especially experienced ones, develop a sense for various aspects of business, be it hiring, firing, pushing an initiative forward, or pulling back on one. Trust others around you, yes, but also trust yourself.
- Act. Even after completing the previous steps, this one can be difficult, but hopefully much less so than if you were operating blind and alone. Jack calls this last step edge, and all great leaders must have it. It is one thing to think and discuss and consider, and it is another thing entirely to act on those insights. Leaders can’t get scared and pull back at the eleventh hour.
The long-standing women’s gymnastics coach for Team USA, Marta Karolyi, is one of the world’s terrific decision makers, particularly when the stakes are high. This year, she slotted Gabby Douglas, the London 2012 women’s gymnastics individual all-around champion, on Team USA again, despite the fact that Gabby finished seventh in the trials and only five athletes could attend this year’s games. Were there people who were hurt and upset by the decision? I can think of a few. But she made the call that her gut told her to—to field the returning champion, a veteran with a phenomenal bar routine and a proven track record of delivering under pressure. And by now we all know the result: another Olympic Gold for the team.
The fact is, there is no perfect formula for making tough calls. You can do what you can to make the process easier, but in all likelihood, your heart will still skip a beat when you send that e-mail or make that phone call. But over time you can become accustomed, if not immune, to the pressure of making big decisions. Tough calls get easier to make over time.