The 2 Most Important Decisions An Executive Makes

What to let go of—and ask yourself—when making a leap up the ladder.

Who and Why.

The first time I held a general management role, I had a mentor share something with me I found to be pretty life changing.

He said, “You need to worry about Who and Why. That’s it.” Here is why this is so important.

Executive Decision No. 1—"Who"

The most important decision you can make as a general manager is Who? Who will you choose to run the most important parts of your business?

The reason this is so important is that if you pick the right trustworthy people, with the right skills and the right temperament, they can move their part of the business forward—without involving you.

I can’t overstate how important this is.

If you don’t have people working for you that you can trust, with confidence, to do big important things without involving you, you will personally work yourself to death, and you will not scale your business.

Fail . . .

When I observe top executives fail, it’s pretty easy to point to at least one poor decision they made regarding Who they chose to help them.

For more on organization design and choosing the right people, read this. And for more on getting rid of the wrong people, read this.

Executive Decision No. 2—"Why"

The next important question is Why.

This is where many leaders make a mistake. They skip over Why and start jumping into What and How.

"Why" is about context.

Why does this matter? What obstacle is this overcoming? What opportunity is this addressing?

WHY is all about defining a clear desired outcome that is clearly understood by everyone.

Which is another reason why Who you choose is most important.

Because once you define the Why, you want that person to be able to run with the What.

I think most leaders generally recognize that diving into How is micromanagement, but they often fail to see that they are getting stuck in the What, when they shouldn’t be.

Here is an example:

As a CEO, you choose a marketing person who you believe is a top-notch person, strategic, and a persuasive communicator (Who).Then together, you start working on the Why.

You decide that the outcome is that the market sees your company as a leading contender in your space in the next 12 months, and your share grows.

You create context—the reason this Why is so important is that you are trailing the market in a part of the business where you have a unique ability, but you have failed to gain market share. The problems you need to overcome are a past reputation and the lack of awareness of your current, very good offer.

As an executive, this level of strategy, Why, is right up your alley.

Then, "What"?

But then, ideally, you want your marketing person to be able to go off and figure out What to do.

It could be related to product enhancement, business development, pipeline development, sales training, media relations, or some combination.

Your leaders must be capable of deciding "What."

If you have not chosen someone Who can figure out the What, you’ll be stuck doing the strategic thinking for that person.

Then if you make another Who choice, in another business area, and that person cannot handle the What, you’ll be doing the strategic thinking for that person, too.

You get stuck doing too much work, because you have not chosen people who are capable of coming up with the What.

Make the level jump successfully.

Sticking with Who and Why is one of the ways the job changes dramatically when you move up to the general management level.

When you were in charge of a function, you had to make the right choices for What and How.

When you become a general manager, you need to learn to let go of What, and let your business function leaders step up to handle it. You job is to choose and develop people who are capable of doing that.

Build the strongest possible team.

When you take this approach, you build a very strong team.

Then you can stay focused on the bigger picture of the customers, the market, the overall quality of execution in your business, the next set of Why’s, problems to overcome and opportunities to go after, or process improvements that no one else has time to think about.

I have found this very simple shorthand to be invaluable in challenging myself about where I am spending my own time (Who and Why), and making sure I have the right people helping me (What and How).

[Image: Flickr user Sherrie Thai]

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3 Comments

  • Kate Donovan

    Patty, written with great clarity and a great piece for newly promoted general managers.  

  • AHMED I. MOUSTAFA

    Patty Azzarello, With all respect to your point of view which I understand; Exceptional Rare-Breed Entrepreneurs always think in reverse order: "WHY" then "WHO" then "WHAT". Let me explain: Exceptional CEOs start with the "WHY": why are they on this business basically? The "VISION". Then "WHO": The Top-Notch Leaders who share their VISION. The Leaders who will build with them the CULTURE that facilitate innovation, customer centric and empowerment. Finally "WHAT": The workable tactics on ground that translate the VISION. "WHAT" stands for what great services, products that you'll provide to your customers. Example: Apple, Microsoft, Virgin

  • Tirivashe Mundondo

    Engaging article, Patty Azzarello. While who and why will remain very important questions, I would like to believe that as a rebel entrepreneur the order will always be reverse as Ahmed puts it. Great read though.