Jobs and the Future of Work

5 ways to make better business decisions – even when times are hard

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Business leaders need to seek out input from as many people as possible to help them make the best decisions. Image: Jason Goodman/Unsplash

Erika James
Dean, Wharton
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  • When facing hard decisions as a leader, you need to get input from as many people as possible to understand all the opportunities and risks.
  • You should also think about potential scenarios for difficult situations in advance – what advice or knowledge might you need if the worst comes to the worst?
  • Here are 5 things you can do when every decision looks like a difficult one.

Patagonia, the sportswear brand, made headlines this summer when its founder and CEO Yvon Chouinard announced his intention to effectively give away the multi-billion dollar business instead of selling it.

Mr. Chouinard, a famously “reluctant” entrepreneur, detailed his decision to an astonished press and media: Patagonia was to be turned over to a non-profit trust, the Holdfast Collective, and its profits channeled exclusively into efforts to fight the climate crisis.

While the decision to “go purpose” instead of “going public” has been heralded by many as setting a new standard in corporate citizenship, it was still not an easy one for Mr. Chouinard to make. Patagonia explored every option, he says, including selling the company privately — a decision that ran the risk of new owners not sharing his values or vision for the environment. In a statement published on Patagonia’s website, he writes: “Another path was to take the company public. What a disaster that would have been. Even public companies with good intentions are under too much pressure to create short-term gain at the expense of long-term vitality and responsibility. Truth be told, there were no good options available. So, we created our own.”

Have you read?

If you’ve led an organization, a function, or a team, you’ll probably be familiar with the dilemma that faced Patagonia’s leadership. There are times and situations — oftentimes, crisis situations — where the stakes are incredibly high and none of the choices ahead of you look good. Whatever decision you make, there’ll be trade-offs to negotiate, risks to navigate; and all eyes will be on you as the person whose responsibility it is to figure out the way forward. So what do you do? How can you do as Mr. Chouinard did, and create your own solution?

“Am I open enough as a leader to seek out and trust the input of other people and defer to their expertise where necessary? If the answer to that question is no, then ask yourself why not.”

There’s a clue, perhaps, in the line “we created our own.” And particularly in the use of the pronoun “we.”

When you’re facing hard decisions as a leader, and especially in a crisis, you’re going to need other people — and lots of them. Complex situations are hard for you alone to grasp. It’s hard to see all of the outlines, all of the eventualities — the opportunities as well as the risks — without having as many eyes as possible on the problem. This is because of the way we’re hard-wired as human beings. All of us are prone, as individuals, to hidden biases or cognitive traps that make it all too easy to downplay risks, make the wrong assumptions, or get stuck in the weeds pursuing one course of action when we really need to pivot and try a new approach. And when there’s a lot at stake — when everything is riding on your decisions — you really need to guard against this kind of thinking in order to see the biggest picture possible. That means seeking out the counsel, the insights, the perspectives, and the expertise of as many other people as you can.

Most of us have had recent lived experience of decision-making in a crisis. During the pandemic, you will probably have faced hard choices in your personal life or your career. I certainly did. Taking up the leadership of the Wharton School in the midst of COVID-19 was immensely daunting — walking in mid-movie as the pandemic shut down our campus, as uncertainty reined around us; taking up the reins of an unfamiliar organization without the option to walk the halls with new colleagues and take the measure of the situation over time. For me, none of the options looked good. How could we make the shift to online learning, without disappointing the expectations of our students? What would this mean for the quality of the learning experience? What about revenue? And where was I meant to focus my leadership efforts: on the immediate priorities of the pandemic, or the longer-term strategy of the School?

For me, grappling with all of this was made immeasurably more feasible by enlisting the guidance of others, and that meant actively seeking it out. It meant reaching beyond the senior leadership team for counsel from those people with boots on the ground — the broader community of program directors, faculty, students, and others. It meant inviting those people into the room, finding the tactics that meant everyone had a voice, and asking questions — lots of them and to lots of stakeholders. It also meant purposefully listening to what I was hearing, and channeling that learning back into the decisions that I, and my crisis team, took.

“When you’re facing hard decisions as a leader, and especially in a crisis, you’re going to need other people — and lots of them.”

Five Things You Can Do When Every Decision Looks Bad

In the next crisis, however, and whenever it manifests, you will need to make critical decisions under pressure. There’s a lot you can do now, in order to be prepared in advance.

Start by asking yourself some serious questions, among them: Am I open enough as a leader to seek out and trust the input of other people and defer to their expertise where necessary? If the answer to that question is no, then ask yourself why not. Think, too, about what kinds of crisis situations you might face. Do some scenario planning, scan your environment, and think about what advice or knowledge you might need should the worst come to the worst; and where you might find that expertise within your organization or beyond.

When — and not if — the next crisis lands, I recommend you do the following five things to optimize your decision-making and find the best possible solutions.

1. Articulate and communicate the problem honestly and openly with your team and your organization so that everyone has a shared sense of purpose and trust.

2. Ensure that information flows freely across the organization in multiple directions, and ask to hear from those people with boots on the ground and eyes on the problem — even if they are not part of your senior leadership team.

3. Insist upon and model a culture of ideation, experimentation, and collaboration where every idea is welcome and failure is both expected and tolerated.

4. Embrace and use real expertise wherever you find it in your organization and your broader ecosystem of stakeholders.

5. Empower your team with the autonomy to step up, to execute decisions swiftly, and to pivot, improvise, or shift course as the situation changes.

The Prepared Leader

I’ve been a researcher of crises and crisis management for many years. The pandemic gave me an opportunity to put my ideas about crisis leadership into practice, and to learn again from this personal, lived experience. Together with Lynn Perry Wooten, my close colleague and lifelong academic sparring partner, I’ve collected some of this learning in a new book that we have co-authored: The Prepared Leader.

We called the book The Prepared Leader because fundamentally, we believe that you can (and should) prepare for the worst — and that by preparing, you can build the agency to push right through a crisis, and emerge better off than before.

I don’t know Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard personally. But I do believe he is what Lynn and I would call a Prepared Leader.

When the chips were down, he and his people looked at the challenges ahead of him and his company in the face. They did the scenario-planning, assessed the risks, and weighed up the opportunities. And when none of the options looked good, he and his people forged a new solution — a creative solution that plays to the strengths of the entirety of the organization, to its values, its purpose, and its tradition in activism. Theirs is a bold decision that has bucked trends and raised eyebrows for sure. But it is a decision that feels true to Patagonia as a business, as a brand, and as a mission. And in making it, as Mr. Choinard writes, “we have found another way to do our part.”

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