Hump Day Wisdom: Making the Tough Decisions

Some decisions are easy.  When there is a clear ethical, financial or operational choice, then anyone can make the call.  But when a leader faces a choice between multiple and conflicting “right” options, decisions are not so straightforward. 

I had the opportunity to hear Scott Ford, CEO of Alltel defend his decision to sell to Verizon at a civic club today.  He was not there specifically for that reason, but you could tell that he had been taking arrows for the decision.  This was an opportunity to explain it to the community it was impacting.

Ford talked about a tradition of financial stewardship in his family.  As an organizational leader, he knows that there are other constituencies that must be served: customers, employees and community.  But his values are clear.  The first obligation is to do the right thing for people who have trusted you with their money.  In this case, that would be shareholders.

Ford’s belief that the shareholder’s investment trumps that of the larger economic community, that of employees and that of customers is not universally held.  One could make a strong argument for each of the groups as coming first- each of which would lead to a different decision.  That means that no decision is completely right, or completely wrong.  So, how does a leader choose?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • Ford went to his values (not his religious belief or even morals).  He told a story today about a multi generational value system that emphasizes fiscal stewardship as an almost sacred trust.  Values are the first stop for leaders who have tough decisions.
  • Another leader, one who I coached, went to his team.  The executive committee was extremely divided about a key strategic call.  So, the leader took them offsite and simply listened to them debate and discuss for three days.  While consensus is rare, the discussion informed the decision and they came back with a clear and committed direction.
  • Lastly, I picked up a trick from an old mentor of mine years ago.  His counsel was to simply make the decision as if your ten year-old child were watching you and understood the implications of your choice.  “What would you want that kid to learn about life and about you from what you chose?”

Tough decisions like this are never easy.  If nothing else, a leader still has to deal with the constituencies that do not feel well served by the choice.  But, that is part of leadership as well.