Nov 22 2017

Executive Decision Making, Part 2: Overcoming Obstacles

Returning to the Scenario I introduced in Part 1, you’re a new executive doing the difficult work of understanding your own mind and anticipating what might impede your success. Here are a few examples of how the obstacles you might face could actually give you greater leverage.

Example #1

  • Obstacle: You find you don’t have enough authority and prerogatives vis-à-vis your board and senior staff to execute your intentions and fulfill the board’s expectations.
  • Leverage: Use the conversation with your board to affirm your role, clarify your purview, and norm on the role of management versus governance. 

If you cannot convince them to cede appropriate scope to you, then limit your efforts and focus on excelling in this narrower range of action. In either case, you’ll know where you stand and can direct your energies accordingly.

Example #2

  • Obstacle: Early opposition builds to your proposed plans and board factions start to form.
  • Leverage: Identify the causes of conflict.

If personal, accept and learn from the feedback whether you agree with it or not.  Use the feedback as a way to show humility and openness to help.  If professional, understand the facts behind the opposition.  Ask for specifics, for data, for examples. Deconstruct opposing arguments into small enough pieces where compromise and agreement are possible. Create space for constructive disagreement on what remains, leaving more controversial aspects of your plan for later conversation. 

Example #3

  • Obstacle: You don’t have the right team in place.
  • Leverage: Use your honeymoon period and some of your political capital to make changes immediately. 

Charge new talent with helping incumbents see things differently, raising the collective game of your leadership team. If you decide to keep some existing senior staff, explain your expectations, give them the resources they need to succeed, offer your genuine presence, and give them the benefit of the doubt they’ll need to succeed. 

Laying out possible obstacles and considering how best to leverage these to your advantage help you set a path forward.  For example, if your goal is to retire from the company in a decade, recognize that, as you disrupt the status quo and attempt to fix whatever’s broken, you will create conflict. Opponents will emerge; the board’s support will wane no matter how deftly you handle things; you will become a lightning rod.  Accept this.

Anticipating these events, you might decide to proceed with caution. You might choose to move slowly and build political capital before making difficult personnel changes; live with inefficiencies rather than rocking the boat; seek consensus and defer your own judgment more often to the collective wisdom of your team or board; and dismiss certain courses of action as just too risky to attempt.

If, on the other hand, you see yourself serving a finite term as CEO, achieving certain goals, and then moving on, you might make different choices. You might decide that setting this expectation of finality (even if only privately) would enable you to operate with greater latitude throughout your tenure, not worrying quite as much about the optics. This perspective might help you make better choices, enjoy the experience more, and leave feeling good about what you accomplished.

These are difficult things to consider so we tend not to push too hard for much clarity. Avoid that trap. When the job’s prestigious and the money’s good, we often overlook conditions that, in retrospect, we’d have been smarter to explore more fully at the outset and accept as reality.

Avoiding this cognitive dissonance means frequent, active assessment and interpretation of our intentions, acceptance of whatever realities emerge, and purposeful planning to make the most of our circumstances.