One of my most salient bits of advice for any business owner is:
Don’t take too long to make a decision you know is right (but difficult)
You can be honest in your strategic planning whilst being empathetic in the execution of your plan.
Yet many business owners can spend months or years mulling over a business decision they know needs to be made, worrying about the impact it might have on people (clients, staff, or suppliers).
Sure, you can tell yourself you’re a nice person for caring about the impact of your decisions, and you are. However, in most cases, you’re not looking hard enough or wide enough at the people affected by not making a decision that you know needs to be made.
Welcome to the loneliness of being a leader.
(Hint: People adversely affected by not making a difficult decision include you, your partner, your children, other staff, other clients etc)
Here are two good examples of this mistake, where I didn’t make a decision that needed to be made and paid for it:
1. The underperforming employee
The first example of taking too long to make a decision, that I knew was right, was in relation to firing an underperforming employee. And yes, I’ve made this mistake more than once.
If an employee isn’t working out and you’ve tried to remedy the situation, then there’s nothing to do but let them go. You’ve got to have the right team around you, otherwise, you can’t perform.
In one extremely painful example of this mistake, our best team member in my Aussie business quit because we didn’t address the difficult issues with one of our worst-performing, but long-serving, team members. Out of loyalty we just couldn’t sack the long-serving person.
She’d worked for my business partner for 20 years and with his mentor and business partner before him for 20 more. She was an institution in our business and quite rightly, there was a lot of loyalty to her.
She was in her early 60s and her skills had not kept pace with the requirements of the business. I’m pretty sure she knew that and was under at least a little bit of pressure at work as a result. She ‘needed’ to work until age 65 to make her retirement plans work.
In hindsight we should have addressed the issue by making it ok for her to leave financially; that is, by providing a payout that recognised and rewarded her long and loyal service, but that solved her need to work for 2-3 more years. We could have given her a payout and a big happy early retirement party and both she and the business would have benefitted.
As I said, we lost the best person on our team, who quit directly because we did not address this issue. It didn’t have to happen, but my failure to address the situation had consequences for other people on the team too.
I’d call it a failure of leadership.
2. The small clients issue
The second example of taking too long to make a decision that I knew was right, was in relation to smaller clients that no longer fit where the business was headed.
This is another relationship-based challenge (like long-serving and loyal employees). However, failing to address it created problems for the team and for the business this time.
The team suffered because they were handling post, email and phone calls that were not really productive uses of their time. We didn’t see this clearly until we’d let these clients go. The time wastage never seemed that big, until we learned that there are no big or small mistakes; there are just mistakes. When you fix one, you get an immediate payback and improvement across your business.
The business suffered because, whether we wanted to admit it or not, some of our better clients experienced second-rate service at times because we were just too busy. We always got there in the end, and because of that for a long time, we told ourselves it wasn’t a problem.
However, after addressing the issue, we saw that we had been mildly delusional. There were times when we were slow to get to issues because of our workload.
Letting smaller clients go improved that and allowed us the time and space to work on other improvements to generate much bigger productivity wins. Without that first decision, letting go of the smaller clients, we might never have been able to deal with the other issues that created the real wins.
That’s often the real cost of not making a decision you know needs to be made; the opportunity cost. And it doesn’t show up anywhere in your Profit and Loss statement.
What could you be doing, developing, and creating if you weren’t spending your time on these other issues (that often seem small)? When you factor in the opportunity cost you begin to realise how expensive these decisions are.
How could I do it better next time?
Get honest sooner about the costs. Don’t discount the emotional and relationship challenges that making these decisions create, but do find a way to deal with them in line with your core values. That just takes some thought and creativity. These situations don’t need to end with blood on the carpet.
What did I learn and now try to live by?
It’s always better to front up to a tough decision sooner.
Bad news doesn’t get better with time.
The simplest motto of all is, just do what you believe to be right. It really helps strip out all of the noise in your head.
Is there a decision that you need to make right now that you know is right (but difficult)?
I hope this article encourages you to face up to it asap.
You can do it.
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One of my most salient bits of advice for any business owner is: Don’t take too long to make a difficult, but right decision.
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