UK: DECIDE NOW!

UK: DECIDE NOW! - The buck stops with you. It's time for a decision - to finalise plans, commit resources and execute a strategy. Do you have what you need to make it? Did you hire the right people to provide all the required information? Should you ask

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The buck stops with you. It's time for a decision - to finalise plans, commit resources and execute a strategy. Do you have what you need to make it? Did you hire the right people to provide all the required information? Should you ask colleagues what they think? What does your boss think? And what will competitors make of the new direction?

Taking good decisions is an art, hard to master and vital to a successful career. One great decision might just make your reputation. A bad one might destroy it. But if you wait too long on the brink of a decisive move, the moment could pass, and the opportunity might disappear. In some cases, the problem could become a crisis.

How much analysis is required? Who should you turn to for help? Management Today spoke to seven leading figures in their fields and asked how they make big decisions - and what kind of advice they could pass on to others.

This is what they told us. It just might help.

JOHN THORNTON, PRESIDENT AND CO-CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER, GOLDMAN SACHS

For investment banks, success is particularly tied to human capital.

The very best people make a disproportionate impact on a firm's performance.

Hiring decisions, therefore, are some of the most important decisions that senior executives make in our industry.

When hiring people, throughout my career, I have drawn on the advice of Siegmund Warburg, one of the giants of our industry. When asked, in a rare interview near the end of his life, what he looked for when hiring people, he answered: 'a breadth of knowledge about the world, rather than a narrow business school focus ... and people who could write well, and discuss history and other subjects'.

He also felt - and feared - that successful firms tend to 'institutionalise mediocrity over time' by failing to take risks on iconoclasts and others who are not conformists. Putting Warburg's advice into practice means not always recruiting from the same universities, not always drawing on people from the same social and economic backgrounds, and not, in effect, valuing credentials over character, intellect and disposition. And it sometimes means first hiring great talent - in some cases raw talent - then finding positions for them later. There may be risks in this approach to hiring, but far fewer than in heading down the path of 'institutionalising mediocrity over time'.

CHRIS GREEN, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, VIRGIN TRAINS

I would identify three different types of decision: Non-negotiable decisions, which are based around the core values of the team or leader; strategic decisions, where a group of experts form themselves into a tight-knit group and guide the board towards the most beneficial outcome; and hearts and minds decisions, which are bottom-up decisions where a cross-section of the company decides to commit to a new line of action. This can produce huge energy and creativity - and virtually self-implementation.

TONY O'REILLY, CHAIRMAN, HJ HEINZ

Lord Palmerston, prime minister of the United Kingdom, once observed that England became great in the 19th Century through a policy of 'masterly inactivity'. Later, Harold Macmillan said that the greatest policy maker of all was 'the force of circumstance'.

There is much of this fatalism about the making of decisions. Many of us make decisions quickly that prove right or wrong. If right, we luxuriate in the good fortune that we have been right, when luck or chance may have played equal measure in the result, or, when wrong, we blame external events as the reason for our misfortune.

To me, the best way to make a decision in an imperfect world is to try and get as much information as possible about people, cost, personalities, potential - and your rivals - and then, make your decisions. It may be my Jesuitical background, but I tend to be what you hope a good marketing man is - that is, a basic pragmatist.

MICHAEL GRADE, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, FIRST LEISURE

A leader needs to be the conductor of the orchestra. He or she should pick a team of colleagues whose skills and experience are very specific, each providing the expertise in the particular disciplines needed by the business, and complementing his or her own knowledge and experience.

Then make sure there are no overlapping responsibilities. Thereafter, insist that everyone shares information, to eliminate the 'information is power'-type politics. Let decisions emerge by debate - but always be prepared to make a decision if no consensus emerges.

PENNY HUGHES, NON-EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF VODAFONE, THE BODY SHOP AND MIRROR GROUP

I try to gather the best quality of information (and the best quality of thought) from individuals, then make an assessment.

I do prefer making a decision and then correcting 'on the run', rather than waiting forever on the edge of a decision. Things are never perfect - you can never have a perfect understanding of complex issues. That's when you have to demonstrate leadership, making the best decision you can on information available. At Coca-Cola, we used to say: 'Let's celebrate failure as an opportunity to learn.' Mistakes were actually applauded.

People knew they could take decisions from a position of safety.

TOM BENTLEY, DIRECTOR, DEMOS

The trickiest part of making good decisions is timing. Because we work primarily with ideas, the product is potentially never finished. We have to judge when a piece of research or an argument is ready to be launched, and when the outside world is ready to listen. There are scores of projects, proposals and possibilities going on at any one time, and we have to balance between making decisions in time to plan properly, and waiting till we've gathered the views and information we need. When you've got hundreds of things going on in your head, it's difficult to concentrate long enough to make the right judgment. Waiting for the right moment can easily turn into putting things off. I find that the best balance is to establish as early as possible what we're aiming for, but then to hold off the final decision until it really has to be taken, to give us the maximum flexibility. Doing this can be stressful - you have to learn to recognise when a decision is really needed - but the combination of early thought and a late decision often produces results.

PROF JOHN QUELCH, DEAN OF LONDON BUSINESS SCHOOL

Leadership is not about being decisive. It is about letting others decide.

Deciding who to hire is therefore critical to success. Good leaders select the right people for the right jobs. Leaders must manage (but in the end decide upon) the process that sets the vision, mission, objectives and values of the organisation. As Napoleon said, a leader is a dealer in hope. Leaders must worry, question and probe, but let others decide what to do. Worry about the cigarette butts outside your front entrance as well as your world competitiveness. Sweat the details. Do not respect hierarchy. Go anywhere in the organisation to find the answers to your questions. Encourage communication across formal lines Leaders must decide to listen before they decide to lead. Their decision to follow is much more vital than your decision to lead and, more often than not, the followers will outlast you. Allocate resources transparently, according to due process.

Make all your decisions positive. Never use a veto. Break log jams fairly, but firmly, when you have to. Finally, the most important time to be decisive is when you realise you've made a mistake. Admit it. Change course clearly and quickly.

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