Tag Archives: decision-making

Time Is on Your Side (Except When It Isn’t)


decisionsThe wisest boss I ever had used to say, “Time is on your side.” No matter what the issue, he seemed to indicate, there was no reason to rush into deciding what to do.

I worked as a Human Resources Director in the division he managed. He had had a previous assignment in Human Resources, and he was very familiar with the personnel issues we handled. He was a good coach and mentor.

Many of the situations we worked on together involved deciding whether to fire an employee or not. In most of those situations, his advice to act deliberately was spot on. As time passed after the situation came to light, more information became available, tempers cooled, and the right course of action became clear. Even when there were differing opinions, the passage of a few days often revealed a path that could achieve a consensus.

  • Sometimes management reached a consensus to discipline the employee short of termination, when hotter heads might have pushed for discharge.
  • Sometimes the employee left of his or her own accord, seeing the handwriting on the wall. Then no decision was necessary.
  • Sometimes we agreed not to fire the individual, who then either shaped up and was salvaged or screwed up again and was fired with a stronger case.
  • Sometimes the termination provoked a lawsuit, but our cool deliberation made the situation more defensible in court.

I learned a lot from that boss—about taking the time to make the best decision possible. He was usually right.

Except when he wasn’t.

On some occasions, time is not on your side—a decision has to be made quickly. The trick to being a good manager and leader is knowing when you can delay to obtain better information and when you must make a call immediately.

Situations where time is not on your side typically involve potential death or injury, or significant property damage or damage to reputation that cannot be undone.

But even on these occasions, if you can take a few moments to consider your options, you are more likely to make a good decision.

Another helpful tool when forced into crisis mode is to make an incremental decision. Can you break the problem up into pieces and deal only with the most pressing issue for the moment?

Only experience will help you determine when you can wait to make a decision—when time is on your side—and when you need to make the call immediately. Just knowing that this is one of the issues you need to consider is a help to strong decision-making. Let time be on your side when you can.

When has time been on your side? When has it not?

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Good Managers Know Macro Trends Have Micro Impacts


Although there are signs of an improving economy and the U.S. economy appears to be in better shape than much of the world, we still have not shaken the doldrums left over after the Great Recession. The U.S. economy has only grown at two percent per year since the recession ended. The Congressional Budget Office projects productivity gains of only 2.2% for years to come. Median household income in 2014 was $4,000 LESS than in 2000. We live in difficult times, and the economic policies and results of recent years have not helped middle Americans.

When I consider these economic statistics, I think about how the economy impacts people I know. Many are just fine. But some friends have been left without jobs. Others scrimp where before they were comfortable. People work longer hours than they want, or wish they could work longer hours to make more money.

performance-reviewMany years ago, before the past decade of economic woes, I managed a department in a business facing hard times. The macro economy was doing well at the time, though our business was in trouble. We used the same management tools that many companies use today—reductions in staff, tight merit increase pools, and less training that we really needed. We were thankful that we had a safety valve in the good economy on the outside. We lost some good employees, but they had places to go.

One of the more difficult decisions I faced as a manager was dividing up a small merit increase pool among my staff of very good performers. Obviously, some employees performed better than others, as is always true. But there was only one person in my group of thirty or so who was not performing at least to the standards the company set.

Should I divide the two percent merit pool evenly, or should I try to reward the higher performers? Senior management in the company told me to differentiate among my staff based on performance. So I did.

But that meant that some very good performers only received a two percent raise. At the time, that’s about what inflation was. They might not be losing ground, but they certainly weren’t making headway. Those were difficult conversations.

In today’s macroeconomic trends, many managers are working their way through difficult times in their businesses. Because of the uncertain economy, there is less of an escape valve than there was when my company had to tighten its belt. The macro and micro trends are headed in the same direction.

Often, leaders have no good choices in managing their businesses. They can give larger increases to their staffs, they can even raise costs faster than revenue. But that reduces profit and disappoints investors.

Or they can limit wage increases and negotiate tough deals with suppliers. These measures control costs at the expense of the employees and suppliers who rely on them for income.

It’s a balancing act, and managers make decisions in one direction or the other every day.

No one said managing would be easy. But the best managers recognize the human impact of the choices they make. They still make the hard choices, some of which hurt people they respect and value. And they stand ready to explain the decisions they made, even when the conversations are difficult.

As a manager, when have you had to make a tough decision that hurt your employees?

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Making Dramatic Career Changes


toughdecisionsI read an article recently entitled “Thinking about making a dramatic (and scary) career change? Here’s what to consider,” by Sylvia Lafair, (July 6, 2015), on The Business Journals website.

The article got me thinking about the three dramatic career changes I’ve made in my life:

  • taking my first job as an attorney in a corporate legal department in a strange city rather than starting at a law firm (as everyone expected)
  • leaving the legal practice to move into a series of Human Resources assignments
  • leaving the corporate world completely to turn to mediating, consulting and writing

Each of these moves set off the emotions similar to those that Ms. Lafair described. Specifically, for me, the emotions were

     1.  Fear of the unknown and leaving what seemed safe

I knew I could do well if I followed the expected path. That even seemed true of the expected path right out of law school. I didn’t really doubt that I could do what others in my law school class were intending to do—work at major law firms near our school. But setting out halfway across country, and working in a corporate law department? Would I get adequate experience to move into other legal assignments in the future? Would I have the same respect from other attorneys and judges? These were my unknowns.

When I decided to leave the legal department for a Human Resources assignment, I knew the learning curve would be steep. I was jumping into a senior HR position with no HR experience. I thought I knew about half of what I would need to know, and that turned out to be correct.

Then, when I left corporate work altogether, I left a good salary and benefits, not knowing for sure if I could earn what I needed to as a consultant and mediator. It turns out my family has done fine financially, but the worry was there for the first couple of years.

     2.  Excitement at the possibilities a move could bring

The strong camaraderie I felt with the people in the corporate legal department ultimately outweighed the doubts about the work. I made my decision based on who I wanted to work with, and that was the right decision for me. One of the law firms I could have joined right out of law school folded within five years, so it would not have been more secure than the job I took.

And I moved into HR largely because I was bored at the repetitiveness of the law practice I had. I needed something new to interest me, and I knew I needed to move to another job to find it. The choice was to leave the law or leave the company, and I chose to leave the law, because a new field of expertise would give me more opportunities to learn.

And finally, I knew I wanted to spend my time doing many things that a demanding full-time job would not permit. That’s why I switched to consulting, mediating, and writing, which has let me set my own schedule.

   3.  Indecisiveness, while I wrestled with the decision

It took weeks for me to make the first decision, months to make the second, and years to make the third.

   4.  Guilt in leaving expectations of family and friends behind and choosing my own path

Choosing the path less seldom taken is always stressful. Why should I move halfway across the country to take a risky job? Why should I leave a field where I was successful? Why should I leave a financially rewarding career?

I got many questions from family members and friends, who essentially wanted to know why I was “dropping out” as they saw it. However, over the years, I’ve seen many friends and colleagues make similar decisions. I guess I was just an early adopter.

* * * * *

In the end, at each of these periods of indecisiveness, the pain I felt at following the expected path became greater than the fear of the unknown. For others (perhaps those with a healthier mindset), excitement about the future may come to outweigh the fear.

If you are faced with a difficult career decision, take a look at Ms. Lafair’s article and see if her suggestions help.

When have you made a change in your career, and what emotions did you experience?

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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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Managing Time & Other Resources: When Do You Take the Easy Way Out?


yoga“The body wants to do the easiest thing possible,” my yoga instructor said to the class a couple of weeks ago. His remark reminded me of my first college class, Economics 101, when the professor began our semester with the words, “Economics is the science of getting the most output for the least input.”

We all want to take the “easy way out,” whether it be in physical endeavors like stretching and strength building, or whether it be our use of resources such as time and money. We want to expend the least physical and mental effort we can and get the greatest result.

Other adages related to resource management include

  • Anything worth doing is worth doing well, implying that we should work until we have done the best we can.
  • The perfect is the enemy of the good, meaning that we should do “enough,” but not strive for perfection.

So which philosophy is the best to adopt, whether at work or in other aspects of our life? Do we strive to overcome our instinctive quest to do things in the easiest way possible, to settle for “good enough”? Do we do enough to get by, but not worry about doing our best? Or do we put out all the effort we can, hoping that the extra effort will pay off?

The answer, of course, is that it depends.

I’ve written before that “systematic neglect” is a valid decision-making philosophy. As I learned from Robert Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, part of a leader’s responsibility is to decide what not to do, which tasks to ignore. However, we are responsible for the consequences of our neglect.

During my career, there were times when I decided that it was in my best interest to expend extra effort and put out a stellar work product. But there certainly were other times when I put a project on the back burner long enough for it to go away entirely.

And there were times when I was caught with a project undone when it bubbled into crisis mode.

I wished I could tell ahead of time which tasks would become unnecessary and which would become catastrophes. Unfortunately, making good judgments on these issues takes a lot of experience, and even then, it is an inexact science prone to failure.

Still, most of us figure out a balance between doing everything and keeping our sanity. At work, figuring out our own personal balance is part of learning who we are and where we fit in the organization.

It is critical to figure out our balance to be successful, whether we are an individual contributor, a manager, or a CEO. We learn to think about which projects have short-term impacts and which have long-term criticality.

We also learn that the balance changes constantly, as our job changes and as the organization’s needs change.

Whether to take the easy way out is ultimately a decision we make every day. In yoga class, in our careers, in our families.

Think about a time when you took the easy way out—did it work?

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GM’s Culture: Is It So Different From Your Company’s?


I’ve been following the news stories over the last several days about General Motors’ report of what led to the delay in addressing their defective ignition switches for so many years. Report to Board of Directors of General Motors Company Regarding Ignition Switch Recalls, dated May 29, 2014, by Anton R. Valukas, of Jenner & Block. The full report can be found on The New York Times website here.

I know nothing about the manufacture of automobiles, nor about the regulatory requirements for reporting defects. But I do know something about corporate culture, and the aspects of the GM report that touch on their corporate culture have fascinated me.

How many of the following aspects of the GM culture sound familiar to you?

  • The GM Nod—when everyone nods in agreement at the meeting, but leaves the meeting with no intention of following through on any action
  • The GM Salute—when employees cross their arms and point their fingers outward at other people, indicating that someone else is responsible for making a decision or handling a problem
  • Information Silos—where one department doesn’t know what another has done, so doesn’t have the information to address the problem

If your organization doesn’t have these precise examples of passive-aggressive management behavior, I’ll bet it has something similar. It doesn’t matter if you work for a corporation, a non-profit, a governmental agency, or in academia. These types of nonproductive behavior can be found in any organization.

In essence, the GM report states that the investigation revealed witnesses who said there was a reluctance first to report problems and then to deal with issues when they became known. But that is a frequent development in insular organizations with hierarchical structures. In these environments, no employee wants to be the bearer of bad news, nor to have the  responsibility of fixing the problem.

raci_23And often in large corporations, no single person controls decision-making. Sometimes the person responsible can’t even be identified.

How many RACI (Responsibility, Approval, Consultation, Information) matrixes have you seen in organizational design meetings. These forms designate which employees are Responsible for the decision, which employees must Approve it, which must be Consulted, and which must be Informed?  (Sometimes other terms are used, but the general concepts are the same.)

Regardless of the terminology used, with all these people involved, even the manager who makes the decision on paper often does not make the decision in reality—because the system is deliberately designed to include too many people and take too much time.

So the decision gets made—if it gets made at all—in a back room, after the meeting.

Remember: Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.

In this case, GM has fired some managers and recommends some overhauling of its management structure and culture. But remember—every system is perfectly designed to get the result it gets.

And no design is perfect.

When has your organization made poor decisions because of its culture?

 

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