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Fast Talk: My Hardest Decision

Like a career, a company is the result of moves made and of opportunities lost. Five high-profile leaders reflect on their most difficult calls.

Jeffrey Zucker

President
NBC Entertainment
New York and Burbank, California

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I made my hardest decision three years ago when I decided, after a 12-year run, that it was time to leave Today and the news business to go into the entertainment side of the industry. That decision certainly changed my life. It forced me to become bicoastal and to build a whole new arena professionally. It was a huge risk. But I think you have to take that big risk in order to succeed. Big payoffs come when you take big chances.

What made the decision hard was that I could not talk to very many people about it. It was just the reality of the situation: If I had been weighing the decision publicly and had ultimately decided not to do it, that would have been a problem.

So there was a small, select group of people who knew about the opportunity. And at the end of the day, I had to make the decision myself. I just decided that it was a great opportunity — an opportunity that I simply could not pass up.

This was a decision that gnawed at my stomach. It was about not wanting to have regrets. You can’t look back on your life and wonder what could have been. I had to try this.

Marsha Johnson Evans

President and CEO
The American Red Cross
Washington, DC

My hardest decision comes whenever I have to fire someone. Those times (which, happily, haven’t been often) have triggered some of my most self-reflective moments, because the decision is often as much a sign of the shortcomings of the supervisor as of the person being let go.

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Two careers ago, during my tenure in the U.S. Navy, I was second in command of its boot camp in San Diego. Some 26,000 recruits came through there each year to be trained. Roughly 12% of them didn’t end up graduating. I used to have to interview every single recruit who was recommended for disenrollment from the program. I hated the thought that a young person would not be able to accomplish his or her first adult goal.

I don’t think people ever set out to fail. They’re new, they’re excited, they see themselves as successful, and those of us making the hiring decision also see them as successful. Then something happens. The potential goes unrealized, or the eagerness dissipates. I always ask myself, Was there something that I could have done to make this person successful? Was it a bad fit that I should have seen? Did I overestimate his or her readiness for taking on a new challenge? Was it poor communication? Did I provide enough resources? Enough time? Did the person know I was available?

All leaders need to ask themselves these questions. It doesn’t make firing someone less difficult. But it does force you to learn from the decision and to do a better job of setting the stage, getting the right match, communicating well, and removing other barriers to the success of people who report to you.

Mary Lou Quinlan

Founder and Chief executive officer
Just Ask a Woman
New York

I made my hardest decision in late 1998, when I walked away from a goal that I had worked toward my entire career. I was one of just a handful of women running major advertising agencies — in this case, N.W. Ayer — and I had become CEO after a 20-year career. In achieving that goal, I became “successful,” but I wasn’t happy. So I said two words that I had never said before: “I quit.” Then I took a chance on starting a completely new career.

I took a five-week sabbatical before I made the decision. I got a piece of paper and divided it in half. On the left side, I wrote down what I love to do and what I’m good at, and on the right side, I wrote down what I don’t like to do and what I stink at. Unfortunately, what I don’t like to do and what I stink at were my job description as CEO. And I love to write, I love public speaking, and I wanted to write a book. I also enjoy women. They’re fun and smart, and they’re neglected as consumers. So I founded Just Ask a Woman and made the commitment to listen to women like no one else.

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The hardest thing was asking myself, Just because I’m dreaming about this, can I do it? It’s secure having in a job in a big office with employees and clients. It was what I knew. When you’re in it, you think you can’t live without it. But by stepping away from it during my sabbatical, I realized that I could live without it.

My advice? You don’t need to take five weeks. Just carve out some of the time that you already have coming to you. Then listen to the people who love you. Your company does not love you. Your friends and your family love you. Ask them, “How do you think I’m doing? How do you see me right now?” They will paint the picture of truth for you.

Rob Glaser

Founder and Chief executive officer
Real Networks
Seattle, Washington

My hardest strategic decision was making the move to enter the content-subscription business on the Internet. It was the summer of 2000, and we had zero examples of anyone who had successfully sold audiovisual content online. In fact, very few companies were successfully selling any content at all. We knew that with broadband coming soon and with our new technology — RealVideo 8 — we could deliver an experience that was truly compelling.

Two and a half years later, we have 1 million subscribers to our service. Our revenue is at $46.9 million, which is flat from last quarter, but our subscription base is up 70% on an annual basis. The service is rising in a way that helps counteract the effects of the continued sluggishness in much of the IT sector.

It was a controversial decision within our company to get into content delivery, but it turned out to be the right decision. We were originally a pure consumer software – sales company. Other people did content. There were a number of companies that had considered doing what we did, and they were told to pick one or the other. My view was that we were unique in our ability to straddle both. And when I look at what has happened to pure tech businesses since then, I’m glad that I took that view.

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The key is that we didn’t make the decision at a time when we had already hit a wall. Given what has happened with both the advertising and the technology industries, our timing turned out to be very fortuitous. The time to plant seed corn is not when you’re starving; it’s when you see new opportunities for growth or when you first see storm clouds on the horizon.

General Wesley Clark (Ret.)

Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Europe
Little Rock, Arkansas

The hardest decision I ever had to make was to plan a mission that was never executed. It was June 11, 1999, at the end of the NATO air campaign against Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, and the cease-fire and peace agreement had just been completed and ratified the evening before. But as we were awaiting word on Serb forces evacuating Kosovo, we began to suspect that the Russian forces in Bosnia were racing to take the place of the Serbs at the critical airfield near Pristina. Had they succeeded in getting there and then using the airfield to fly in reinforcements, Kosovo could have been fractured and then partitioned. This would have vitiated all of NATO’s efforts during its air campaign.

British and American political leaders were stunned by the Russians’ road march toward Kosovo. They didn’t want to believe that the Russians would undercut NATO. And they were concerned that if we did anything to react to the Russians, it might escalate into a conflict. But it was my job to consider military action, and to do that, we needed a plan. I ordered that the plan be developed.

As the phone calls cascaded in and the fears mounted in London and Washington, I pressed to complete the planning and to then evaluate the risks and make the decision. But eventually, we were directed to cease the planning and were told that the Russians weren’t coming. But planning was the right thing to do, even if the political authorities decided not to act. (But their information was wrong: The Russians did occupy the airfield, and only through the assistance of strong diplomats in Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania did we avoid Russian reinforcements on the ground in NATO.)

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