Making the Tough Calls: It’s What Leaders Do


toughdecisionsWe had a big project underway in our Human Resources Department—combining the company’s vacation and sick pay policies into a paid leave bank. The HR group had recommended this change for several years, but it had taken time to get the company’s leadership on board. This time, it looked like it was a go. We would make the change at the beginning of the next calendar year. It was October, and we were ready to communicate to managers, and then to the employee population at large.

We held one last meeting with the IT folks to confirm that our time reporting systems could handle the transition. They’d been confident in prior conversations. But this time—with the HR manager spearheading the project (one of my direct reports), my boss the Vice-President of HR, and me all present—the IT guys said, “It will take us two man-years and $150,000. Can’t be done in less than six months.”

I knew immediately that however much I wanted to support my project manager who had worked hard to bring the paid leave bank to fruition, the project was dead in the water. We couldn’t proceed without the systems in place to track employees’ time. It was a decision I didn’t want to make, but the only reasonable choice for the company at that time.

My boss and I looked at each other. I couldn’t look at the project manager, who was facing a year’s work going down the toilet. “We have to pull the plug,” I said. “We can’t do it this year.”

Whose fault was it? IT’s for not being honest in earlier meetings? My project manager’s for not pushing IT harder? It didn’t matter, the decision was clear. Ranting about who was at fault was not going to help, though the project manager and I had a couple of private conversations later about the problem.

A recent article on Inc.com, How to Control the Damage When Making Unpopular Choices, by Alix Stuart, for the March 2015 issue of Inc. magazine, reminded me of this situation.

Image from Forbes

Image from Forbes

There are times in every leader’s career when he or she must make hard choices. Do you push for what you want, or settle for what you can have? Do you take a risk or play it safe? Do you pursue Product X or Product Y?

Many times the choices are not as clear as the choice I faced over the paid leave bank. The Inc.com article makes good points about trying to communicate well in the time leading up to the decision. But ultimately, leaders have to make the call and deal with the consequences.

Dealing with the consequences requires listening to the people hurt by the decision, mitigating the harm where you can, and standing firm when you believe your decision was right. I spent many hours listening to my project manager after the decision, helping him plan our next foray into paid leave banks (which was successful). But I never thought we had any good alternative to the decision I made.

When have you had to make a tough decision and face the consequences?

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4 Comments

Filed under Human Resources, Leadership, Management

4 responses to “Making the Tough Calls: It’s What Leaders Do

  1. Sara, I’m just glad there are still leaders out there who will lead. Glad you stood your ground.

  2. Pingback: My 200th Post: A Retrospective, a Thank-You, and a Request | Sara Rickover, Behind the Corporate Veil

  3. Pingback: Good Managers Know Macro Trends Have Micro Impacts | Sara Rickover, Behind the Corporate Veil

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