Fred sat at the end of the table, sweating and looking at the six of us as we waited expectantly for his decision. He hemmed, he hawed. And he asked to go over the options yet one more time.
“It’s easy, Fred. Settle or sue. We’ve been here over an hour, now make the call.”
He was stymied and we were frustrated. Every one of us makes hundreds of decisions every day, but sometimes a decision can seem insurmountable. So what do you do? Flip a coin? Play odds-evens or rock-paper-scissors? See if your secretary turns left or right the next time she walks down the hall? Sure, we snicker at the thought of resorting to such tricks, but we’ve all used them. Sometimes tricks may even be helpful—but here are some more constructive ideas.
- Do your homework. Gather the relevant information ahead of time. Most important decisions aren’t surprises; you have time to understand the circumstances and dig into them a little.
- Trust your staff. If you have people pulling together information for you, doing the research and helping to get the background, learn from them and value what they say. If you override their opinions and redo their work, they will become less rigorous and less committed to the outcome. If they know that what they give you will be accepted (with the appropriate scrutiny), they’ll be more invested in getting it right.
- Get advice. A friend used to say, “Opinions and assholes; everybody has them.” And everyone enjoys sharing them (I mean opinions—stay focused) as long as they know they won’t be stuck with the responsibility for the outcome. So, make sure they know it is your decision, and that you’re just asking for their input.
- Accept uncertainty. You’re not going to have all the information you need to make the tough decisions. If you did, it wouldn’t be tough. Just accept that you have to make the call anyway. Call it a leap of faith or following your gut. Most of the time, after you’ve done your homework, you know what the answer is. Typically, the hard part is justifying it.
- Make the call and move on. Nothing is worse than making a decision and then waffling and worrying over it. That undermines you to yourself and others, distracts you from getting other things done and accomplishes nothing. You’ve got better things to do—so go do them. Plenty of others will be around to second-guess if you were wrong.
- Accept that sometimes you are wrong. Take responsibility and get over it. A few years back, someone surveyed the CEOs of the Fortune 100 about decisionmaking. The CEOs estimated that they made the right decision approximately half the time. Sounds like flipping a coin to me. But like the really successful poker players, when they won they won big, and when they lost it was small. The CEOs made the right decisions more often when it really mattered, and the wrong ones they made were less critical.
So, Fred, square your shoulders, look us in the eye, and make the call. It’s your job.
Otto Sorts has been reading law since before Martindale met Hubbell. Of Counsel at a large corporate firm that prefers to remain anonymous, Otto is a respected attorney and champion of the grand tradition of the law. He is, however, suspicious of “new-fangled” management ideas and anyone who calls the profession the legal “industry.”