‘Make a decision or you’re fired’

Originally published on August 7, 2015 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-growth/make-a-decision-or-youre-fired/article25795156/

On my first day of work early in my career, the owner of the company that had just hired me sat me down and told me he had two simple rules. First, if a situation called for a decision and I didn’t make it, he would fire me. Second, too many bad decisions would also get me fired.

No, he wasn’t Donald Trump. But he was a successful, hard-driving entrepreneur. And while his motivational speech may seem brusque, I found it clear and sage advice that has remained with me throughout my career. After all, it takes both action and intelligence to produce results.

What reminded me of this encounter 25 years later? As my own organization grows, we’ve been considering our internal structure. And I’ve come to realize that consistently effective decision-making is still the key to success.

I took some time on a recent vacation to read a slew of articles and books about different approaches to organizational structure, new and old. I read about hierarchy, matrix and meritocracy, all the way to holacracy (where management throws up its hands and lets self-organizing teams make up their own rules). I tunneled my way through a mountain of models, a throng of theories and a plethora of prescriptions, all pointing the way – in different directions, of course – to leadership nirvana.

At the end, however, I felt that every article I read, every organizational chart I examined, seemed to have missed the point. All these experts focused on how their structure is better than all the others at facilitating communication and team dynamics. But is that really the goal? All talk and no action doesn’t work in the movies, and I don’t believe it’s a recipe for success in business either.

For me, management structure should be the tool that best enables corporate decision-making. Nothing more. And certainly nothing less.

Success in business comes from the ability to make a series of incremental, informed and inclusive decisions. The organizational structure that we choose, the style of communication we encourage and the corporate culture that we craft must all generate critical decision-making capability.

To do that, any structure must begin with a discussion of leadership – not lines, squares, circles or matrices. High-quality, self-aware leadership is a critical component of a healthy organization and its culture, regardless of industry or sector. We all face the same challenges, especially in a tight labour market. Good people rarely leave good jobs – they leave bad bosses.

Quality leadership is the answer, whether you are trying to disturb the status quo by building an innovative culture, creating a compelling employee proposition that appeals to all generations, promoting workforce retention, developing in-house talent rather than going out and buying it, or simply creating a continuously engaged customer base.

Management expert Jim Collins blew up the notion that the top knows best in his 2001 book Good to Great. He discovered that the best-performing American companies of the past 20 years had one thing in common: truly humble leaders who inspire performance by setting standards, not issuing orders. Leaders who think they have all the answers may get results in the short term, but they don’t build resilient organizations that continue to thrive after they leave.

True success comes from collaboration. In her new book Profit in Plain Sight, Anne Graham encourages creating a company-wide culture of alignment and engagement, saying: “Infuse your employees with possibilities.” According to Graham, this means “embedding the desire to be part of something more, to be the best, to behave every day in ways that add value to your customers, and to earn profit with integrity that will help the entire company grow and succeed in the future.”

Your people do not want a leader to be an inflexible “boss” or “driver.” They are more successful when their leader is confident but not commanding. They are waiting to be energized by leaders who can put meaning back into their work.

The best leaders today are partners, always willing to talk about personal development, mutual interests and solving problems together. In this context, work is no longer a burden imposed from above, but a shared goal, best achieved through a common commitment to innovation and improvement. Employees want to perform and to grow, but they’ll only do so when they know they have the ability and freedom to make decisions that will drive the business forward.

The best motivation is not the fear of being fired – it’s the fear of not living up to a leader’s expectations. So long as you make the following traits part of your leadership brand:

  • Inclusiveness. You can’t expect people to make informed decisions if you don’t keep them up date on the company’s goals and objectives.
  • Clarity. Provide clear objectives for your organization, department or product line so your employees know the directions you wish to go in and what results you hope to achieve. Otherwise, your team members won’t know how to make the right decisions. Or worse, they won’t make any decisions at all.
  • Focus. If you meander and waffle in your own decision-making, you can expect the same nothing less from the people you are leading.

So many companies now are reviewing their structures to ensure they have the right recipes for success in today’s fragmenting markets. Before you build (or destroy) your own structure, remember that self-aware leadership is the true driver of decisiveness. Structure is simply the tool for its execution.

Of course, we can still get fired. Once the leader/CEO makes a decision, everyone gets a say in the outcome. Team members can vote by disengaging (or disembarking). Customers can vote – by buying elsewhere. And your boss, whether an individual or a board, will cast the deciding vote. Those who encourage the broadest approach to decision-making don’t just have the best chance of getting it right – they have the best chance of getting another shot at it, too.

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