Sustainability: Decision making

As a business leader, you can’t always get all your employees’ input on big-time decisions. Often, you have to make a decision quickly or risk losing the opportunity altogether. Michael Feuer offers advice on how to make profitable mind-to-market decisions without getting sidetracked by consensus overload.


Often, the biggest roadblock to execution at companies is consensus. Leaders spend valuable time and money trying to get everyone on board with a decision, and end up stalled in a state of extended debate—a.k.a. analysis paralysis. But in today’s business environment, it’s those who can make speedy (yet thoughtful) decisions—sometimes in hours, days, and weeks instead of months—who not only survive, but excel.

It’s important for leaders to make well-informed, wise decisions, but when time is of the essence, it’s also crucial to know when it’s time to stop talking and start acting.The job of an entrepreneur, manager, or CEO is to say, “We’re taking this fork in the road, for better or worse, and it’s on my head.”He or she is the one person who makes the important decisions when it counts. It’s this decision-making responsibility and the pressure that comes with it that causes leaders to constantly go to their teams for input. Unfortunately, doing so leads to plain old-fashioned inertia.When you spend too much time trying to build consensus, you quite simply fail to accomplish anything that moves the venture forward.

Today, success means executing quickly and effectively. Sometimes it’s best to put consensus aside and “just do it.” The leadership style of a benevolent dictator combines an appreciation for consensus and the input of the team with the ability to recognize when debate, conversation, and analysis can’t take you any further.

When you’re an entrepreneur and a leader, make-or-break decisions are made on a daily basis. There’s just no way around it. When you lead as a benevolent dictator, you can move faster than the competition and save time, money, and energy to capitalize on opportunities. Absolutely, you respect the people on your team, but you also realize the point when talking must come to an end and the decision must be made.

Learn to make “battlefield” decisions
Being a leader in business is somewhat like being a commander on a battlefield—things are happening quickly, and many of them are outside your control. Generals and general managers are a lot alike. Neither group always has the luxury of going over every little detail or asking their people what they think should happen. They have to move fast. They have to think on their feet. To take advantage of a competitor’s weakness, you have to be able to move quickly, and you can’t do that if you spend too much time trying to figure out what every last person on the team thinks.

At OfficeMax, when we had to move from mind to market and implement must-make changes, I didn’t have the luxury of time to build consensus and sway everyone over to my position on what would work and what wouldn’t. Instead, I had to, out of necessity, make many pronouncements that became gospel. It wasn’t that my decisions were always better than someone else’s. I simply knew that a decision had to be made, and there wasn’t time for debate. I knew that I could quickly maneuver around flaws in the decision if I was wrong provided I kept everyone focused on the end game and made adjustments as we moved forward.

Have a “ready, aim, fire” attitude
My own method for making difficult choices is to follow the time-tested formula of ready, aim, fire. I take emotion out of the equation, gather the facts, decide where I want to go, and determine how to get there.

After OfficeMax’s first year, we’d actually grown nicely and were operating stores in Ohio, New York, and Michigan. Better yet, we’d done so with no real casualties and just a few wounds. In hindsight, the key to that first year’s success was our ability to make on-the-run decisions rather than conduct lengthy analysis that would have meant waiting weeks—if not months—before taking the next step. I was often forced to make decisions on the fly, even if I didn’t have as much information or understanding as I’d ideally like, and the dictator side of me was willing to take that risk. Along the way, I learned a few things that helped me make choices that were as smart and calculated as possible, given the circumstances.

Most notably, I realized that one runs a business with the head, the heart, and the gut. On a good day, all three kicked in; however, at other times I would rely on my heart or gut to make the right move. Also, one doesn’t always have to be 100 percent sure about something to make a decent decision; you just have to have a good sense that something will work. The smell test is one of the best tools to use if you aren’t positive about a decision. Essentially, that means if something doesn’t smell right to you, it most likely isn’t going to work, so take a pass.

No need to be sorry
Remember that leading benevolently means never having to say you’re sorry. Sometimes when leaders must take the initiative to quickly put their decisions into practice, they feel like the schoolyard bully. But that’s where the benevolent side of your leadership must kick in.

I certainly appreciate the effect my decisions have on all of my constituents, starting with our customers. Without them, we wouldn’t have a business. A benevolent dictator style may sound autocratic at first, but when the emphasis is on the benevolent portion, meaning you’re doing what is right for the greater good, the odds for success move in your favor.

In OfficeMax’s early days, I was making a lot of quick decisions without consulting the team. It was during this time that I remembered the quote from the movie Love Story, ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry.’ I thought this would be the perfect preface for strong-armed decisions, and accordingly gave my team a quick synopsis of the movie and the background behind the statement. After the tutorial, I would occasionally use the line when I knew I’d been aggressive in making a decision. I also always made it clear to my employees how much I appreciated and valued them. During high-stress periods, I would explain, “You know the next few days are critical for us, so if I ask for something, infer that I said ‘please,’ and when you do it, know that I mean ‘thank you.’”

Avoid the b.s.
People are willing to do just about anything for their leaders as long as the leader is honest about his intentions and avoids falling back on an excuse for why he wasn’t able to use an employee’s idea or ask for others’ opinions on a certain decision.

We were moving so fast in the early days of OfficeMax and now with Max-Wellness, my new health and wellness retail business, that most of my team members accepted the ground rules that came along with my being a benevolent dictator. They understood that it meant that there would be situations where I couldn’t open a decision up for debate or when I would have to rein in a discussion. Most of them appreciated this directness because they respected and understood that we needed to forge ahead quickly.

Beware the desire for “zero risk”
Yes, analyzing data and making informed decisions is good. The problems start when analysis is used as a crutch or to avoid pulling the trigger. You begin second-guessing yourself and giving more and more thought to “what ifs”…and before you know it, you’ve lost the use of speed as a competitive advantage. The team becomes terrified to move forward, and all involved find themselves playing out woulda-coulda-shoulda scenarios.

Some entrepreneurs and business leaders get stuck in analysis paralysis and consensus building in an attempt to have ‘zero risk’. But since you’ll never be 100 percent guaranteed to succeed, you’ll be stuck studying, researching, and consensus building in a circular fashion. At that point, analysis will become an excuse for continued delays and can doom a project from ever getting off the ground. Remember that you must always be moving forward—there’s no such thing as a pause button or instant replay in business.

Sleep on it
There will of course be decisions in your entrepreneurial career that require analysis and deep thinking. Often, the best way to work out these problems is to put your subconscious to work.

Soon after launching OfficeMax, I started thinking about some of my biggest challenges right before going to bed. I had read a lot about subconscious and subliminal thinking, and had determined that if I focused on a problem, my subconscious would help me come up with plans A, B, and C. Amazingly, I would wake up after four or five hours of sleep and presto—I would have answers (or at least possible answers) to the problems I had been pondering when I went to bed. Doing this allowed me to hit the ground running every morning. I’d be at my desk at 7:30am ready to tackle whatever came my way.

Learn to make decisions for the love of the company
When you do what is right for the company, not just to please this or that group, then you’re halfway there in making your undertaking work. At all costs, avoid making decisions based on how they will affect the ‘us’ or ‘them’ groups in the company. Sure, some in the ‘us’ camp will disrespect you, and many of the ‘thems’ will dis you at every turn. Others will refuse to utter your name. But rest easy. You made your decisions for the greater good and love of the company. All things being equal, you will not only survive, but also succeed.

Decisions aren’t supposed to be easy, especially for leaders. Business is not a popularity contest. To make your move, you must listen and learn. Always study the consequences of your decisions from all perspectives—short-term, intermediate-term, and long-term—but learn to do so quickly and effectively. As time goes by, you’ll become better and more comfortable with making smart decisions.

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Michael Feuercofounded OfficeMax in 1988 starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money, a partner, and a small group of investors. As CEO, he grew it to more than 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales topping $5 billion. He is also CEO of Max-Ventures, a venture capital and retail consulting firm, and founder and CEO of Max-Wellness, a comprehensive health and wellness retail chain that launched in 2010. He is also the author of The Benevolent Dictator: Empower Your Employees, Build Your Business, and Outwit the Competition.