Business leaders have always been scrutinized for their decision making. In 1914, Henry Ford was both denounced as a fool and praised for doubling wages of factory employees from $2.34 to $5 per day. In 1987, Merck & Company decided to give away a cure for river blindness for free, an unfathomable choice for most pharmaceuticals, because they recognized the cost of the drug would be too high for impoverished international markets. Today, entire industries emerge and evaporate in just a few years, so executives must be ready to make substantive choices with limited information. Decisions on people – who to hire, fire, promote and reward – is even more complex; even if new algorithms are quantifying our daily behavior, humans create messy and imperfect data sets. How can business leaders remain confident they are making the best call on people decisions when the stakes are higher than ever?
Modern day philosophers can be of some guidance. Ruth Chang makes a compelling argument in her TED talk on choices, encouraging the recognition that even small, seemingly unsubstantial selections can be difficult. Utilizing a choice between oatmeal and a chocolate donut as an example, she explains, “One is better for you and the other tastes better, but neither is better overall.” Ruth goes a step further than most – she actually loves the opportunity to make a tough decision. Difficult choices empower us to stop, reflect, and consider what person or group we aspire to become; as a result, we actively choose to mold our destiny rather than allow indecision (which is itself a decision) or fear to force an outcome. Ruth’s conclusion is to focus on values. Your values should set the standard for what is acceptable and important in your life. Each of our choices reinforces who we are as unique human beings, and hopefully guides all our decisions. If your purpose in life is to become the best version of yourself, and you value being healthy, you might choose the oatmeal. If your purpose is to live a fun and exciting life and you value personal enjoyment, you might choose the donut. Neither is inherently right or wrong, but each fit differently into your own unique purpose and values.
Missing from these powerful discussions is an important but daunting reality: How do we navigate difficult choices when presented with many compelling options? Even more significantly, How do we navigate difficult choices when there are no suitable options? Finally, How might we orchestrate the decision process to avoid difficult choices in the first place?
These scenarios arise routinely when recruiting senior leaders. Sometimes, companies have two to three outstanding candidates and must choose the one they think is the best. It’s a great problem to have, but it is still a decision that has some element of risk. Rarely are people the perfect choice, so it is critical to focus on what is most important. Focusing on what is most important may not be as easy as it sounds. Ask the Portland Trail Blazers executive who selected Sam Bowie ahead of Michael Jordan. He thought the most important thing was selecting a center, but what was truly most important was selecting a winner.
On the other side, there are times that the requirements of the position, the pool of potential candidates, and the compensation package simply do not align. The hiring authority is frustrated, because the business need remains. The solution is usually buried in the details. It is time to get granular with the position and the potential candidates. Ask why don’t the people who we have unearthed fit the role? What would an ideal candidate look like? With the ideal candidate is it most important the individual fit the skills, performance and the experience or the personality, character and the intangibles. It can also be useful to subtract and possibly add some requirements until a manageable role is devised. As with all your decisions, consider your values paramount as the hiring authority as paramount.
Finally, how might we avoid difficult decision making in the first place? First, consider the resources that have been dedicated to identifying solutions. Often setting up a deliberative process and engaging additional resources is all that is required. I know in my business, when I am trying to Google or pick at a problem, the solution can be illusory, but when I speak to the right professional, clarity can come quickly.
Making decisions in today’s fast paced, global economy is challenging. Selecting leaders that are worthy of your faith and trust is vital to your success. Thoughtful reflection on the purpose and values of your organization and the necessary leadership required to achieve your goals is essential. Without it, it can be like shooting an arrow blindfolded. The arrow might hit something, but is not likely to hit the bulls-eye. The more thorough your analysis and self-reflection, the closer to your values, and the center of your target, your best options will be.