Chartered Management Institute: In my opinion

Chartered Management Institute Companion Patrick Dunne argues that good judgment is the key to executing a successful business strategy.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Fantastic! 'You liked her then?' 'You bet, brain the size of a planet and charming as hell. She's going to make a great addition to the board.' 'What's her judgment like?' 'Brilliant, she loved my new strategy.' 'Hmm!'

Two of the defining characteristics of successful people in so many walks of life are the possession of good judgment and the capacity to recognise and harness it in others. Yet, bizarrely, 'judgment' is one of the least used and most undervalued words in business.

The divergence between decision theory or stated policy and decision practice is frequently striking. So is the talent of many companies with wonderful decision processes in place for losing the plot strategically.

Pretty well every market leader has done it at some point, usually because arrogance or a period of sustained success has undermined judgment. Praise and applause can dull the senses and distance you from reality. So can spending too much time in poorly thought-through and badly managed strategy away-days.

For some, away-days are brilliantly well organised catalytic events delivering superb decisions and buy-in. For others, they are expensive, energy-sapping chores that have no positive effect and make everybody grumpy. I once wrote a play, which we performed across 3i's European network, on the subject of how boards really do strategy. The aim was to stimulate debate and come up with some best practice. Our audiences agreed that many businesses have ritualised the away-day and that there was an opportunity to transform the way that strategy gets done.

Much of the debate about governance, corporate responsibility and business ethics has been preoccupied with process. Ironically, this has had the effect of driving away individuals with good judgment from the boards of public companies. Has this been a bad call by the well-intentioned?

Probably. Why, then, has it hap- pened? Because sub-optimal decision-making is normal. It is always easier to solve the problem we're faced with - or are most interested in - than to get our heads around the bigger picture.

Just look at how many of us would rather spend time dealing with our in-box than thinking.

Away from the noisy debate between the naive zealots and the autocratic dinosaurs, however, a lot of businesses have quietly raised their boardroom game; they now have a more engaged boardroom team and are enhancing their performance as a result. The chairmen of these companies have been good at striking the right balance between process and substance and focusing the board on what matters most.

The key drivers of performance in any business are the chief executive and finance director. A chairman's judgment in selecting the right CEO, establishing the right working relationship with them and then knowing when a change is required, defines the success of their chairmanship.

All directors, executive and non-executive, depend fundamentally on the quality of their finance director.

At 3i I have been lucky to work with some terrific business leaders over the years within the company and within our portfolio. All have had excellent judgment of people and commercial situations, seized the value associated with opportunities - and had a lot of fun doing so. They have been great at judging where to spend time and who to spend it with, when to increase the organisational pressure and when to slow things up a bit. Most are also very strong on process, but it's just as true that many are not.

If they are not, then high self-awareness has ensured that they pick and motivate other people who more than make up for their own inadequacies.

One of my favourite cartoons shows someone saying to the finance director: 'The addition is correct, but where's the money?' Being able to see through the spin is a hallmark of those with good judgment.

For many, the really great judgments are uncomfortable to make at the time. Happily though, the best in business have superb antennae and combine excellent judgment with great interpersonal skills and the ability to deal with the irritatingly right and the sycophantically wrong. They make the right calls when deciding between loyalty and responsibility, and they know when the expedient decision that everyone else is comfortable with is flawed. Probably the best judgment they can make is over the timing and manner of their own succession.

In conclusion, good process certainly aids decision-making, fair process increases the chances of our best decisions being executed, and strong review processes help us make better judgments in the future. But I'm willing to bet that if you take a look around that boardroom table, or the team you're in, and figure out who has the best judgment, you'll end up spending more time with them and less on process.

In partnership with the Advanced Institute of Management Research, the Chartered Management Institute has just published research called 'The role and importance of strategy workshops'. A free summary report can be downloaded from

CV Patrick Dunne is group communications director at 3i Group plc.

A regular commentator on boardroom issues, he is the author of three books, including Directors' Dilemmas, published this year. He is a visiting professor at Cranfield School of Management, a member of the CBI's London Council and a Trustee of the charity LEAP - Confronting Conflict.

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