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When I decided to buy back my company from a corporate conglomerate, it changed my life dramatically. The personal impact of this single business decision—this “tough call”—made me wonder if others had experienced similar defining moments. To find out, I reached out to some of America’s top executives to explore the single most important business decision they made during their careers. The result is Tough Calls From the Corner Office, a series of personal stories that give an inside view into the events, stakes and pressures of the decision-making process. Of course, each story has a unique plot, but there are some universal principles that run through each of them. The following excerpt sums up key lessons I learned from them.
1. There’s no substitute for strong leadership. Leadership is the ability to set a direction and motivate people to move in that direction. Sometimes this requires getting people to do things they initially don’t want to do or don’t think they can. It’s about getting them into a mindset in which they genuinely want to follow the mission and they put their reservations aside.
2. Ethical behavior is not just right, it’s smart business. I would hope ethical conduct would be an obvious and compelling principle in its own right—but we constantly see so many business leaders and people in general sailing ethically rudderless that it’s apparently not so obvious. For every deal point, negotiating position, higher price, or other advantage you might give up by being ethical, you’ll get it back in multiples for doing the right thing and the moral thing.
3. Always have a plan. Planning is not about tying yourself down to a particular set of steps. It’s about disciplined thinking—forcing yourself and your team to work through issues so you’re prepared either to follow the script as it continues to make sense or go off in new directions as necessary. Planning is about imagining the future, and when circumstances change, re-imagining.
4. Be comfortable with risk. Business is about risk management, which means you are constantly analyzing and assessing new scenarios. I’m not a gambler by nature, but I had to take risks. My task was getting as comfortable as I could with the information I had. If you are truly risk averse, you probably don’t want to be the boss. Remember, not to act is still an action.
5. Know yourself and follow your heart. Every good leader must have the courage to go against the pack, or even against advice of respected advisors, family or friends, if his or her internal compass is pointing in a different direction.
6. Take responsibility. Nobody is perfect—so that includes you and everyone you’ll ever work with. Be humble in success and open in failure. Once again, if you’re cynical about what should be an obvious principle, how about this: When you fail, you’re usually going to be found out anyway, so take responsibility upfront, you’ll look strong.
7. Never stop learning. Leaders are naturally curious about every aspect of business, the complex psychology of work, the management of people and enterprises. They are hungry to know more. Faced with any difficult business or career decision, you are ultimately on your own. Nobody can definitively tell you the right answer. But by broadening the inputs—and listening to the voices of those whose journeys have taken them to similar places—we can find comfort, direction and inspiration for the moments that will determine our course, and on those rare and special occasions, those moments that will come to define us.
Harlan Steinbaum was the founding chairman of Express Scripts, a leading pharmacy benefits management company ranked 135 on the Fortune 500 list, and former chairman and CEO of Medicare-Glaser Corp., one of the largest retail pharmacy chains in the U.S. Tough Calls From the Corner Office, published by HarperCollins, is his first book.
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