Richard Burleigh, past ICE Council member, offers advice on becoming a more decisive leader.
I used to think I was good at making decisions.
I believed it was good leadership to make snappy decisions so that people around me had clear direction and things kept moving forward.
After all, as a leader, this was my job, right?
Yet, I began to notice that my decisions weren’t being implemented as fast as I was expecting.
I couldn’t understand why this was so one day I shared this concern with one of my peers.
What my colleague told me caught me by complete surprise and caused me to completely re-evaluate my approach to making decisions.
How others perceived my decisiveness
I learned during this conversation that what others saw in me was someone who did make many decisions but would often later revise the decision - or change course completely.
I was simply unaware of this behaviour.
This fully explained why people around me were cautious of moving too quickly once I had decided on something.
I don’t profess to be an authority on decision making and there are indeed many great books on the subject.
In this post I will set out just some of the key things I’ve learned and observed, and what has worked for me in the past.
These are in no order of priority.
1. Make fewer decisions
Some leaders see themselves as decision-making machines confident in their superior knowledge and experience.
Not only can this be a destructive people leadership strategy, but it also means that they will make a lot of decisions which, given the pace of business life, could not be fully thought through.
I believe that successful leaders make relatively few ‘bigger’ decisions and delegate many ‘smaller’ decisions to others within their team.
2. Don’t wait for all the data
This can be counter intuitive, especially for engineers – we're educated to do the opposite.
There are three types of decisions:
- the good one (the best)
- the poor one (not the best)
- no decision (definitely the worst)
I believe that given sufficient analysis, people generally make good decisions and so what we wish to avoid is the ‘no decision’.
As leaders we have to accept that we’re unlikely to have all the data we’d like to have before we decide.
For example, what will definitely happen if I do X or what will definitely happen if I do Y – we can’t see the future, so we don’t know.
Rather we need to recognise when we have sufficient information for us to act.
I once worked with an engineer who was often paralysed by the notion that additional useful data was just around the corner and he should continue to wait.
He often did wait, to the detriment of his team and the project.
3. Consult, consult, consult
As a successful leader making important decisions you want to get it right most of if not all of the time.
You can't see into the future so any decision will be based on your best judgment.
If you rely only on your own world view, it's likely you'll only see part of the picture.
When you invest in the time and process of soliciting the views of others around you – usually your team, peers, and where needed, your own boss – a whole new series of dimensions open up for you to use as you make your important decision.
There was an accomplished business leader whose habit was that, if there wasn't enough disagreement over a decision in his management team meetings, he'd postpone the decision until the next meeting.
This was because he felt that without this disagreement it was likely that not all aspects of the problem had been discovered.
4. Communicate your decision
In his book The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker talks about how a decision isn’t made until it’s communicated to all stakeholders.
I couldn’t agree more.
So often, as leaders, we think that after all of the hard work of analysis and then making an important decision, we can relax, and things will just happen.
Actually, it’s often the harder part of the work to then effectively communicate the decision to those who need to know - perhaps it is your staff, your clients, or the public.
5. Don’t look back
When you’ve made your decision, move on.
It’s a distraction for leaders who, after making a key decision, continue to obsess over whether it was a good decision or a bad one.
Credible data will present itself in due course as useful feedback regarding the outcome of the decision and this of course should be rigorously scrutinised and analysed.
Until that time, keep moving forward and don’t look back.
The subject of decision making is huge and there are many considerations and factors impacting the effectiveness which cannot be covered in one post.
However, I sincerely believe that if you follow these five simple rules, you will greatly improve the effectiveness of your decisions – good luck!