Decisions Better Ones – For CEOs

Big Red Car here. Decisions, y’all. Decisions.

This is a post redux from the The Characteristics Traits and Skills of the Successful CEO — Decisionmaking post from some time earlier. I am running it again because I continue to see a number of CEOs who are struggling with forming and making decisions.

CEOs have a hard job which entails making a lot of decisions many of which they are making for the first time. Sorry, that’s the job you’ve chosen.

But it doesn’t have to be as hard as you make it. You can streamline it by taking a process approach to how you frame and make decisions. A better methodology will end up with better decisions and you will expend less energy and create less angst by having such a process at your fingertips.

Making decisions

Seems like all a CEO does these days is make decisions.  Once she has put the Vision thing to bed, then the decisionmaking is in full splendor.  Lots and lots and lots of decisions.

CEOs today make more decisions in a single day than business persons made in a month some time ago.  The pace of business is faster and the decisions are more diverse.

Being good at making decisions is a critical skill for the successful CEO.

It is a skill that can be developed.

The decision making process

General of the Army Dwight David Eisenhower — he of the five stars Generalship, commander of the Allies in Europe, President of Columbia University, first NATO Commander in Chief and President of the United States — had been a staff officer under both Douglas MacArthur and George Marshall.  The only 5-star General to have served under two other 5-star Generals.

[Hey, the Big Red Car knows some arcane stuff, no?  Haha, Big Red Car, stop it.  Please.]

As a staff officer, Eisenhower had learned how to present a decision to his commanders for their review and decision.  He had worked for some very tough commanders.

He preached the catechism of “complete staff work” by which he meant the following:

1.  Identify the decision to be made;

2.  Identify the stakeholders in that decision;

3.  Identify the constraints and resources available;

4.  Frame the question and obtain input from the stakeholders;

5.  Review and evaluate all of the possible decisions including doing nothing;

6.  Present the decision to the decider with all of the alternatives fully discussed;

7.  Make a single recommendation, explain why and be prepared to defend it; and,

8.  Obtain a decision from the decider.

Then communicate the decision to all of the stakeholders, explain the commander’s intent and implement the decision.

This methodology is a good road map for a CEO to develop her own decision making process and to wave the banner of complete staff work.

Eisenhower’s momentous decision to launch the D Day invasion on 6 June despite the spotty weather forecast was a perfect example of his decisiveness, decision making methodology, risk taking and the loneliness of command.  He polled the room and got differing views and recommendations.  He pondered it.  He decided to invade.

The results speak for themselves as the Allies achieved tactical surprise in spite of marshaling the largest such invasion in the history of the world.

Success is often simply the result of making a great decision.  Listen up, Old Sport — good results flow from good decisions.  Good decisions flow from an orderly decisionmaking methodology.

Doing nothing

There is an anecdote about Eisenhower who liked to play golf.  He was playing that day at Augusta Country Club — home of the Masters and which had a tree he had hit into so many times that they began to call it the “Eisenhower Oak.”

A bright young State Department man came to the first tee and told him of some great problem and urged him to abandon his golf game and return immediately to the White House to deal with it.  He demurred.

“Can’t you see, I’m getting ready to tee off.  That problem will still be here when I finish.”

As it turned out, the crisis righted itself.  No action was taken.  Eisenhower was reported to have smiled and remarked that many of the problems presented to a thoughtful President scream out for no action.

Sometimes doing nothing is the right decision.

Come on, Big Red Car, give me something more

OK, CEO, here is the juice.  And remember the juice must always be worth the squeeze.  <<<link  [Haha, Big Red Car, you crack yourself up, don’t you?  Yes, Grasshopper, I do.]

Develop your own iterative decision making process — step by step.  Decision making methodology.

Educate your folks to present decisions to you in an orderly manner.  Hey, you could have been a 5-star General if you wanted to, no?

The ability to make decisions, good decisions — is held hostage to your decision making methodology.  Preach complete staff work and make it stick.

The mark of an experienced and accomplished executive is the ability to make lots of good decisions because they have a great decisionmaking methodology and they have a staff and colleagues who present complete staff work to drive these good decisions.

You can do it, my dear CEO.  You can do it.

But, hey, what the Hell do I know anyway?  I’m just a Big Red Car.

10 thoughts on “Decisions Better Ones – For CEOs

  1. You crack me up BRC… and write good posts like this one. Effective CEO decisionmaking is a critical element of leadership. Making tough decisions in tough times (that aren’t disastrous) engenders trust and respect. Certainly Eisenhower gained that in the example you gave.

    I’d also like to add that some decisions are bigger than others. Decisions have a value, time has a value, and it’s easy to spend more time that the decision is worth. I’ve said in meetings “that was a 5 minute decision and we’re over budget. The answer is yes”

  2. Looks good.

    Likely good enough to block lots of just nonsense that is too common otherwise, e.g., stuff from big egos and/or face saving, turf battles, fighting with others inside instead of the enemies/competitors outside, arrogant guesses, opinions based on next to nothing, etc. Keep the process rational and on paper with a record that lasts instead of just talking over each other with off hand guesses in meetings. Make the process about the facts and information on paper instead of just interpersonal pushing and shoving.

    And not so detailed it can’t be applied in practice.

    Is good for high level stuff where, really, the decision maker is delegating to some relatively good subordinates with a lot of staff for a lot of information.

    Concentrates on the human stuff and not the deep technical stuff, and that is likely appropriate for high level decision making.

    Read, saved, abstracted, indexed, in line to be applied at the first real need. A keeper!

  3. So, we’ve got Joe, say, running the server farm. Joe was in the business when there were only two servers, but now there are two long rows of racks, each the standard 72″ high, and the need is for at least a 10X expansion. Joe understands those two, long rows the best of anyone in the world.

    But, with the expansion, maybe the company needs a CIO? So, a C-level version of Joe? To lead to a new server farm location, with backup power, reliable, efficient air conditioning, top notch security and firewalls against hackers, good internal security, good system and internal network monitoring and management, backup, recovery, rolling out new versions of the software, good software development management, etc. So, need staff, training, discipline, documentation, protocols, procedures, etc.


    Option 1: Just let Joe do it. Have him learn on the job.

    Option 2: What Joe knows is likely just darned important both for keeping the current business running and also for planning the growth.
    Then, try to keep Joe and his crucial knowledge and proven abilities.

    So: Send Joe to a few seminars on management of server farms, networks, and people, provide him with a good budget for consulting from people who have been there, done that, got the T-shirt at, say, a big bank, a big public utility, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Oracle, etc. Let Joe also get the best technical sales engineering and support from the best vendors, Cisco, Microsoft, etc. Have the consultants show Joe some clearly at least okay ways to partition the work for his new responsibilities, and then get Joe some good recruiting support for filling out new direct reports for those partitions. Work with Joe and the consultants to formulate and describe some milestones, and watch Joe and check his progress. Maybe also get Joe some staff including an operations guy to keep the old stuff running while Joe works on the new stuff. And get Joe some consultants with gray hair and experience in generic management.

    Option 3: Hire a new CIO who knows nothing about the business or Joe’s work but has generic skills in managing growth.

    It’s easy enough to expect that what Joe is doing is unique, particular to the niche of the company, etc., and, thus, something we can’t expect can be found in a book, in a seminar, or from a consultant.

    But, for Option 3, since the skills are generic and broadly applicable, maybe they can be identified, explained, documented, and taught, and maybe Joe can learn them? Or, are we to believe that those generic skills are inscrutable, unknowable, much like black magic, and can’t be documented, taught, or learned except just by experience? There are stacks of books on general management — maybe some of that stuff is good and can be taught although when I was a B-school prof I didn’t see any of it in the courses being taught.

    The Option 3 generic guy? He doesn’t know an Ethernet cable from a USB cable, doesn’t know that, in servers and server racks, 1 U = 1.75″ or about total dissipated power, will face challenges getting the respect and loyalty of his subordinates or the respect of the rest of the C-suite, the CEO, and the BoD, may build an empire and use the new power he has to extract money and power from the rest of the company, may cover his ass with policies and procedures, and may resent anything technical or new from his subordinates. He will have a tough time leading getting enough good advice to lead well on new technical issues. On technical issues, likely he will try some things, because he doesn’t really know what the heck he is doing, fail, get discouraged and afraid, and become rigid and try to block change.

    I’d go with Option 2.

  4. Thank you BRC–tell The Boss he did so well he can take the rest of the day off. In my little business, I’m at one of those ‘inflection points’, needing to make wise decisions. This post, and The Boss’s further comments really help. And as for The Juice being worth The Squeeze…a great parable about risk management. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it ain’t. Prediction of risk v reward is a constant learning curve ’round here.

  5. I am currently reading (again) Shogun, by James Clavell. Amongst other things it is a master class is how to “not make a decision until you need to” (blog post forthcoming). Sometimes decisive actions are called for. Sometimes, “doing nothing”, or waiting until the right time to do something, is the right answer. The art is in knowing the difference. Love the Eisenhower story….

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