There have been too many instances in my career where I've needed to make a decision, not because I was sure of the right path forward but because making decisions is what leaders do.
If you’re in charge, your team or organization will inevitably look to you for direction to help lead them down the correct path. And depending on the talent on your team and the type of organization, that might not take much. For example, when you have a lot of strength above and below you, it’s often much easier to make good choices and set a course you feel confident about.
Other times, the next steps just aren't as straightforward. Recently I’ve been working with an organization to help them sort out their data and get some answers on what they should do to manage their relationships with their clients. They had grown, resources were thin and service requests were up. At the heart of this debate were two factions within the organization, each advocating for a different path.
One side firmly believed that the only way they can be successful in the future is by shifting how they relate to their constituents. This faction favors increased rules and barriers, but ultimately, if successful, this approach could yield more engagement and relationship development with their audience.
The other group asserts that they've already done well, so why change the path? And they're right; this organization has done well — they’ve made it through the worst of the pandemic with growth that is comfortable, if not aggressive, and things are fine right now. They believe that changing for no reason would jeopardize all of the success they currently enjoy.
When coaching a leader through this kind of difficult decision, I always like to start with the data as a foundation. So I helped them sort through and make sense of their data sets, but after reviewing everything, the results were inconclusive. The data didn’t prove that restructuring would result in any noticeable growth. But at the same time, the numbers didn’t indicate that the trends sustaining them would necessarily be viable in the long term.
In short, no matter how you turned the data to look at it from a new angle, there just wasn't a clear directive. So we went back to discussing our findings, and for every good point that one faction raised, there was a “Yeah, but ….” response, which is almost impossible to combat.
So we were stuck in a never-ending loop of back-and-forth discussion. Again.
At stages like this, it's tempting to table the whole thing and say, “We’ll think about this for a while and come back to it.” But that’s not leadership and will not lead to a clearer path forward. It's just going to create frustration.
Instead, when the data can’t tell you where to go and you’ve exhausted the opinions of your strongest advisers, your choice is simple: You either find different data or different voices.
Different data is great when it works, but if you’re at an impasse of this size, you’ve probably already done what you can with the numbers. I had, so I opted to look for clearer, less muddled voices.
In situations like these, the voices I try to find are interested and invested in a good outcome, but not necessarily the people you'd typically turn to. After all, at this stage, you’ve already asked the executives and the managers, so now it’s time to look for people who aren’t normally involved in high-level decision-making.
Find the people in your organization who work on the front lines, and present the situation to them. It’s imperative that you describe both sides as neutrally as possible: “One group is saying X, one group is saying Y, and I'm interested in making sure we chart the best possible course. What do you think?”
Then find another person who’s not usually a decision-maker and ask them. And do it again. And again. And again. Often, you’ll see trends emerging in how the people closest to your organization’s base view this issue, and that's exactly what you need to break through the impasse at the upper levels.
I did my share of asking around, and in sharing notes, we quickly saw a path emerging where it made more sense to stay the course than shake it up and create new rules. While not pleasing everyone, it was a path and a decision.
The leaders came to a good choice here not by swinging a sword around and cutting the baby in half but by acquiring enough information to make a sound decision and identify the best course of action. Because that's what leadership is — taking steps to make the right choice, even when you feel like it would be more comfortable to stay seated on the fence.
Doug Phares is the former CEO of the Sandusky News Group. He currently serves as managing director of Silverwind Enterprises, which owns and provides management services to small businesses. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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