Given what I wrote last week about how leaders think, I want to explore in more detail the subject of decision-making which is critical to success in the world of leadership. Decisions may come in the form of strategy, people or culture. They may impact structure, systems or strategy. But having worked with many successful leaders, it is clear to me that they all make decisions in a unique manner.
First, successful leaders understand that decisions do not matter if nothing happens afterwards. Many leaders think that once they have made a decision they have solved a problem. But as an executive coach, I have to continually remind people that decisions are not action. Decisions do not equal implementation. Decisions are not the mobilization of resources. Decisions do not equal execution. Decisions are empty without action that follows.
Second, successful leaders understand that effective decisions begin long before the actual call. It starts with the ability of a leader to sense there is a problem within the context of service delivery or the context of the service environment. “Sensing and framing” is a term defined by Noel M. Tichy and the late Warren G. Bennis in their great article, “Making Judgement Calls: The Ultimate Act of Leadership”, Harvard Business Review, October 2007. It is critical to decision-making as it gives the decision a foundation or reason “why.”
Still, many executives forget that there is an important next step after they make a decision. What I have observed is that successful leaders focus on mobilizing resources, e.g. people, information, technology, etc., to support the decision and to make it actually happen. The key is that successful leaders also stay involved during the execution phase post the decision by helping to define clear milestones or planned short term wins so people can clarify their progress and be successful. People do not mind executing a decision or implementing a new system or solution as long as they know they are making progress. The best leaders make sure this element is part of the implementation post the act of making a decision.
Third, successful leaders understand that relationships are not linear, especially when it comes to the successful implementation of important decisions. In a linear relationship, a positional leader will approach it from the point of view that more of variable A will produce more of variable B. Successful leaders do not approach people like they are flow charts but instead recognize that the health and effectiveness of the relationship is based on clarity through dialogue. If this level of work is done in advance of the actual decision, the usual challenges with organizational change, e.g. resistance, is reduced and the forward momentum of the organization can proceed without major complications. However, the key is to build healthy work relationships on an on-going basis, not at an episodic level.
In short, when we step back and reflect on how successful leaders make decisions, we realize that they spend significant time and energy teaching others how to think rather than simply telling them what to do. And this is one of the main reasons why they are successful.