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A harried CEO asks: How do I decide what decisions to make?

Never worry about whether you have to make decisions, Maynard Webb advises in his weekly column. Instead, worry about the timing of your decisions.

A harried CEO asks: How do I decide what decisions to make?
[Source image: artisteer/iStock]
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Editor’s Note: Each week Maynard Webb, former CEO of LiveOps and the former COO of eBay, will offer candid, practical, and sometimes surprising advice to entrepreneurs and founders. To submit a question, write to Webb at dearfounder@fastcompany.com.

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Q. So many people are asking me to make decisions. Which ones should I make, and which ones should I ask the team to make? 

—Harried CEO of a late-stage private company

Dear CEO, 

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A lot of times, people want the boss to make the decisions. That is their natural default. And this can make us feel good and even become addicting, but it’s not scalable and can be a trap. 

As effective leaders, our job is to empower others. If someone else can do it, that’s good; it’s an opportunity for them to grow and for you to focus on other matters. You should always be working to empower people to make crucial decisions. That means you have to train everybody to make effective decisions. This might start earlier than you think. It begins with architecting the principles and values of the organization so decisions can be made efficiently and without controversy. There must be awareness and alignment in advance of decisions being made, so that people know there’s a clear way to handle things. Like anything, you should not try to create a new process in the middle of a storm—preparation and training should happen before the storm hits. 

Here is what I suggest:

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  1. Focus on making sure people understand the values and principles of the company.
  2. Consider the decision. Is it important? Is it urgent? 
  3. Determine the right person to make the decision and whether or not they need help.

Never worry about whether you have to make decisions. Worry about timing. You don’t want to make them too soon and you don’t want to make them too late while others wait for an answer. It is up to you to figure out: When does this need to be made? How can we hear all points of view? How big is this decision? Does it matter? 

Here’s my advice for anyone to help keep a clear and fair mind while making a decision:

  • Conduct decisions with an air of wonder. Ask yourself: Do I have all the facts I’d like to have? Am I missing anything? Are there subconscious biases creeping in? Ask yourself if you’ve thought of everything and go back and reconsider.
  • Ask others for their opinions on what they would do if they were you. Make sure you are not insular on who to ask—don’t gloss over people who might disagree with you. Think about how anyone else in your circumstances would respond and what they would decide. Don’t be afraid of asking for help if you don’t know the answer. Gathering input from others is often helpful and doesn’t mean that you are not the decision-maker. The real mastery comes when everyone else thinks they made the decision, but in reality, you did.
  • Decide. Understand the time constraints of the decision and proactively decide whether to make a decision or not. Does the situation require an answer now? If so, make it. Too many people delay making decisions. That is, in essence, making a decision.
  • Hone your judgment so that you keep getting better. If you make a decision that isn’t right, learn from it. Be willing to admit when you’ve made a mistake. Acknowledge your error and fix it fast. Consider adding a postmortem process for key decisions: Were they good or bad? What information should you have gotten? 

Decisions tend to get easier with experience and practice, though keeping an open, inquisitive mind often becomes harder. Do your best to have pure and transparent motives, which will help you make clear and sound decisions.