A couple of months ago I went out for drinks with some of the graduates I studied with at the AICD company director’s course. One of the members had recently arrived back in Australia following a two-month executive leadership course at Harvard that grooms potential company CEOs. It was pretty intensive. One hundred leaders from around the world studying and living together, while successful American CEOs addressed the class together with the world’s best business school teachers.
Of course, we were eager to know what he had learnt in this exclusive course. And his answer was simple. He said “We were told that if we wanted to be the best leader all that we needed to do was to be confident in our decisions. No matter what. Just being able to make a decision and know we could live with it, not matter the outcome, makes you a great leader.”
Of course, the best advice always seems simple, but often it is much harder to do in practise.
Being Confident in Your Decisions
According to Chip and Dan Heath in the book, Decisive, humans have a pretty poor track record at making good decisions. We fall in love with our company products and fail to see their flaws, we pretend that there are no negative outcomes and let our emotions cloud our decisions. We also suffer from a range of biases that mean our decision making is often faulty. Take mergers and acquisitions – one of the riskiest business decisions an organisation makes. According to a study, an astonishingly high 83% of mergers and acquisitions fail to create shareholder value.
Often, business leaders will minimise the risk inherent in decisions by putting their faith into careful analysis. Counterintuitively, this is prone to error.
A joint research study from the University of Sydney and McKinsey & Company set out to discover whether process or analysis was more important in producing good decisions (ie: increased profits, revenue and market share). The result? Process mattered more than analysis by a factor of six. It’s no wonder that colloquially the term for too much analysis, “analysis paralysis” is used to label a poor decision process.
In the study, the main finding was that corporate leaders who made great decisions worked with a defined decision process allowing them to systematically avoid making biased (and often low quality) decisions.
In the book, the Heath brothers outlined the W.R.A.P. decision process. Essentially, it contains four elements – the importance of having a lot of choices to select in a decision, reality testing any assumptions, attaining distance before deciding and preparing to be wrong. And it’s this last factor that I want to focus on.
One of the hardest things about being human is that few of us like to be wrong. When we are young and impressionable, our education system rewards us when we do well in exams and beat our peers in assignments. We live in a society that honours and rewards competitive sportspeople and being number one. From an early age, we learn that when we don’t know something it highlights that we are not good enough. The result is leaders who pretend to know everything for fear of exposing a lack of knowledge or expertise.
Yet, great leaders aren’t afraid to be vulnerable and to admit when they don’t know something. Instead of seeing this as a flaw, they use their rookie knowledge to their advantage to seek the expertise and know-how from others They lead by asking questions that empower others to think for themselves and share their viewpoint. Rather than default to childhood programming of being the best, they realise that they demonstrate power from being open to learning from others, which builds trust and influence . Yet, many leaders fear it will be their undoing.
A CEO of a mid-sized firm summed it up neatly by saying to me recently:
“Leadership is interesting. The best leaders I have worked with aren’t afraid. They are comfortable with themselves. They are not fearful of something like their own failures or being exposed for not knowing something. Often, you will see a leader, out of their comfort zone and they try and control everything because they don’t know what to do. They manage people’s time – complain about the length of time spent at the toilet. Really petty things. They don’t have the confidence in making their own decisions, so they hold everything tightly, but all it does is erode trust with their team and their senior manager.”
While being confident is one of the characteristics of a great leader, the reality is that the work environment can easily dictate how confident a leader feels. After all, research studies show putting a confident leader in a low trust, hostile environment and they slowly start to lose their positive disposition. No one makes a good decision if they are making it in fear. But no matter your situation, there are habits high performing leaders do to ensure they remain confident in themselves, but also in their decisions.
Even in a poor culture, high performing leaders build trust with their direct team members, almost ensuring each member has a better work experience. While this certainly benefits each employee, it also helps the leader. Through building trust with others, leaders automatically get access to better quality information ensuring they make better quality decisions.
In the last article I wrote, How Google found the Surprising Ingredient to High Performing Teams, Google discovered that it doesn’t matter who you have on the team. What matters is how individuals interact with each other. It all starts with leaders who create a psychologically safe space where everyone can express their point of view and be themselves. In doing this, they create a high trust environment.
Five Leadership Skills of Confident Leaders
To effortlessly create a psychological space, confident leaders practise five leadership skills that reduce the likelihood of being overwhelmed when they are out of their comfort zone, putting them at risk of behaviours and poor decisions that will inadvertently destroy trust. They are:
Ask for Help
This is crucial, but not easy to do if you have been groomed to be independent and self-sufficient for fear of seeming weak. Smart leaders ask questions that actually make the other person feel better about themselves. For example, “I hear you are an expert in reading P&L spreadsheets. Could you please help me understand what debtors mean?”
2. Gain feedback
Seeking feedback is really about asking open-ended questions and demonstrating that the other person’s opinion matters to you. See every question that you ask as a potential learning opportunity. This is a wonderful way to not only get your direct reports to be more accountable but can also empower them to think for themselves. There are so many wonderful questions that you can use to expand people’s mindset from “What’s the best suggestion you got from our customers this week?” to “If you were me, what would you do to improve the customer returns process?”
Ensure that in every meeting, you ask a question that not only gets people thinking, but lets them know you care about their point of view (and really listen). This will start to build trust and influence with others quickly. It also ensures you get high-quality information that reality test any assumptions.
3. Practice making any decisions
It’s not enough to get information from people and be too afraid to do anything with it. Brian Tracy, a management guru, once said:
“Decisiveness is a characteristic of high-performing men and women. Almost any decision is better than no decision at all.”
Being a leader is about making decisions and having the confidence that you can change the outcome if it doesn’t go to plan.
Tony Robbins, another guru, says:
“You are a leader if you can make decisions, because so few people do in this world today. People spread their preferences. They talk about what they want. They skate on the surface. They don’t go deep and master anything. If you decide, ‘I’m going to make the tough decisions,’ then you’re going to be an effective leader. And the first tough decision is in order to do something you’ve gotta give up other things. I gotta pick one thing. It’s not going to be perfect, but I’m going to make it perfect.”
4. Lose your emotional attachment to outcomes
One of the reasons people are afraid to make decisions is that they are fearful of being wrong or making a mistake. A mentor I worked with would constantly remind us to keep launching a new marketing campaign and be intrigued by the results, rather than lament that it wasn’t working. Seemed like easy advice. But it wasn’t easy to do. My study group all had issues (myself included) with not taking the results personally.
While not everyone is an entrepreneur, employees also get emotionally involved in their work, putting them at risk of making flawed decisions. Lorrie Norrington, the former EVP of Intuit, was brought in to transform Intuit’s flailing accounting software products. One of the biggest challenges she faced were staff who were so in love with the product that they couldn’t see the glaring design flaws. Part of her role to turn it all around was to get staff to practise making impartial decisions. Even today, she reminds business leaders:
“Don’t fall in love with a problem or a business because you won’t change it. You need to be really clinical. What are we really getting too wedded to? What can we do different and better? How can we dispel our assumptions and beliefs?”
This all boils down to practising being curious about outcomes. If you want to work on this, a good strategy is to make it a game and write out hypotheses of an outcome you expect and then assess afterwards whether you are right or wrong with no emotion. Make it scientific. Include your direct reports, so they also start to see results as a game rather than a negative indictment that they made a mistake.
5. Design your own decision process
Read the book Decisive or other books and articles on making unbiased and impartial decisions. Create your own simple framework and test it out. Not only will this make you more confident (and less likely to mistreat those around you, but it really will build your decision-making muscle). A business coach friend of mine has developed his own decision framework for assessing which clients he takes on. It has three tenets. Fail one and he won’t take you on as a client.
1. No dickheads
2. They are ready to give it a red hot go, and
3. They have a problem he can actually help with.
He uses that framework with everyone. Even if you refer a potential client to him, his first question to you is “Is he a dickhead? Is he likely to make changes and listen or is he just going to think he knows everything” (and often I’ve had to say “Well, yes, he is a dickhead but he has a problem you’d be good at solving.” And of course the answer was, “Thanks, but no thanks.”)
What distinguishes a high trust leader from a low trust one is that they are willing to honestly assess and reflect on their behaviours. They are mindful of how they treat others and practise being more open and collaborative. They champion authentic dialogue. They don’t instantly jump to conclusions that people are deliberately being unproductive or difficult. They don’t make others feel wrong. And they are clear on what they need to do to get results. Put this all together and it creates a confident leader willing to accept when they made a poor decision and start again.
Leaders who try and control others, rather than their own behaviours, fan the flames of distrust, ensuring they receive poor quality information and people who won’t cooperate with them. It’s almost a guarantee that any decision they make will be biased and incomplete. Incidentally, it also creates a vicious cycle where they make unsuccessful decisions and find it hard to get the support of others ensuring that their confidence levels remain low. And of course, their success as a leader.
Being confident as a leader is really about empowering others to be good at their job, so you can leverage the collective intelligence of your organisation to make the best decision. No matter what happens, you know that you made the best decision with the available information ensuring that both yourself and your followers can be confident in your leadership abilities.
What has been your experience with confident leaders?