Avoid consensus overload and keep the venture moving forward with rapid yet thoughtful decisions
By Lorie Hailey
Often, the biggest roadblock to execution at companies is consensus. Leaders spend valuable time and money trying to get everyone on board with a decision, and end up stalled in a state of extended debate – a.k.a. analysis paralysis. But in today’s business environment, it’s those who can make speedy (yet thoughtful) decisions – in hours, days or weeks instead of months – who not only survive but excel.
Michael Feuer (pronounced “foyer”) says it’s important for leaders to make well-informed, wise decisions, but it’s also crucial to know when it’s time to stop talking and start acting.
“The job of an entrepreneur, manager or CEO is to say, ‘We’re taking this fork in the road, for better or worse, and it’s on my head,’ ” said Feuer, cofounder and former CEO of OfficeMax and author of the new book “The Benevolent Dictator: Empower Your Employees, Build Your Business, and Outwit the Competition” (Wiley, 2011, ISBN: 978-1-118-00391-6, $24.95, www.benevolentdictator.biz). “It’s this decision-making responsibility and the pressure that comes with it that causes leaders to constantly go to their teams for input. Unfortunately, doing so leads to analysis paralysis or plain old-fashioned inertia.”
Treading water is fine until exhaustion sets in, and you begin to sink. When you spend too much time trying to build consensus, you fail to accomplish anything that moves the venture forward, which will lead inevitably downward.
Success today means executing quickly and effectively. In his book, Feuer writes sometimes it’s best to put consensus aside and “just do it.” He presents a leadership style – being a benevolent dictator – that combines appreciation for consensus and the input of the team with the ability to recognize when debate, conversation and analysis can take you no further.
“When you’re an entrepreneur and a leader, make-or-break decisions are made on a daily basis,” Feuer said. “There’s just no way around it. When you lead as a benevolent dictator, you can move faster than the competition and save time, money and energy to capitalize on opportunities. Absolutely, you respect the people on your team, but you also realize the point when talking must come to an end and the decision must be made.”
He suggests these benevolent dictator decision-making tips:
Learn to make ‘battlefield’decisions
Being a leader in business is somewhat like being a battlefield commander – things happen quickly, and many of them are outside your control.
“Generals and general managers are a lot alike,” Feuer said. “Neither group always has the luxury of going over every little detail or asking their people what they think should happen. They have to move fast; they have to think on their feet. To take advantage of a competitor’s weakness, you have to be able to move quickly, and you can’t do that if you spend too much time trying to figure out what every last person on the team thinks.
“At OfficeMax, when we had to move from mind to market and implement must-make changes, I didn’t have the luxury of time to build consensus and sway everyone over to my position on what would work and what wouldn’t. I had to, out of necessity, make many pronouncements that became gospel. It wasn’t that my decisions were always better than someone else’s. I simply knew that a decision had to be made, and there wasn’t time for debate. I knew that I could quickly maneuver around flaws in the decision if I was wrong, provided I kept everyone focused on the end game and made adjustments as we moved forward.”
Have a ‘ready, aim, fire’ attitude
Feuer’s own method for making difficult choices is to follow the time-tested formula of ready, aim, fire. He takes emotion out of the equation, gathers the facts, decides where he wants to go, and determines how to get there.
“After OfficeMax’s first year, we’d actually grown nicely and were operating stores in Ohio, New York and Michigan,” Feuer said. “Better yet, we’d done so with no real casualties and just a few wounds. In hindsight, the key to that first year’s success was our ability to make on-the-run decisions rather than conduct lengthy analysis that would have meant waiting weeks – if not months – before taking the next step. I learned a few things that helped me make choices that were as smart and calculated as possible, given the circumstances.
“One doesn’t always have to be 100 percent sure to make a decent decision; you just have to have a good sense something will work. The ‘smell test’ is one of the best tools to use if you aren’t positive about a decision; essentially, that means if something doesn’t ‘smell’ (feel) right to you, it most likely isn’t going to work, so take a pass.”
Leading benevolently means never having to say you’re sorry. Sometimes when leaders must quickly put their decisions into practice, they feel like the schoolyard bully. But, as Feuer explains, that’s where the benevolent side of your leadership must kick in.
Being a benevolent dictator may sound autocratic, but when the emphasis is on the benevolent portion, meaning you’re doing what is right for the greater good, the odds for success move in your favor.
“In OfficeMax’s early days, I was making a lot of quick decisions without consulting the team,” Feuer said. “During this time I remembered the quote from the movie ‘Love Story’: ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry.’ I thought this would be the perfect preface for strong-armed decisions, and gave my team a quick synopsis of the movie and the background behind the statement. After the tutorial, I would occasionally use the line when I knew I’d been aggressive in making a decision.
“I also always made it clear to my employees how much I appreciated and valued them. During high-stress periods, I would explain, ‘You know the next few days are critical for us, so if I ask for something, infer that I said “please,” and when you do it, know that I mean “thank you.” ’ ”
Avoid the b.s.
People are willing to do just about anything for their leader as long as he is honest about his intentions and avoids falling back on an excuse for why he wasn’t able to use an employee’s idea or ask for others’ opinions on a certain decision.
“Most of my team members accepted the ground rules that came along with my being a benevolent dictator,” Feuer said. “They understood there would be situations where I couldn’t open a decision up for debate or would have to rein in a discussion. Most of them appreciated this directness because they respected and understood that we needed to forge ahead quickly.”
Beware the desire for ‘zero risk’
Analyzing data and making informed decisions is good. The problems start when analysis is used as a crutch to avoid pulling the trigger. You second-guess yourself and give more and more thought to “what ifs” … and before you know it, you’ve lost the use of speed as a competitive advantage. The team becomes terrified to move forward.
“Some entrepreneurs and business leaders get stuck in analysis paralysis and consensus building in an attempt to have ‘zero risk,’ ” explains Feuer. “But you’ll never be 100 percent guaranteed to succeed – you’ll be stuck studying, researching and consensus building in a circular fashion. Continued delays and can doom a project from ever getting off the ground. Remember that you must always be moving forward – there’s no such thing as a pause button or instant replay in business!”
Sleep on it
There will, of course, be decisions that require analysis and deep thinking. Often, the best way to work out these problems is to put your subconscious to work.
“Soon after launching OfficeMax, I started thinking about some of my biggest challenges right before going to bed,” Feuer recalls. “I had read a lot about subconscious and subliminal thinking, and had determined that if I focused on a problem, my subconscious would help me come up with plans A, B and C. Amazingly, I would wake up after four or five hours of sleep and presto – I would have answers (or at least possible answers) to the problems I had been pondering when I went to bed. Doing this allowed me to hit the ground running every morning. I’d be at my desk at 7:30 a.m. ready to tackle whatever came my way.”
Make decisions for the love of the company
When you do what is right for the company, not just to please this or that group, then you’re halfway there in making your undertaking work. “At all costs, avoid making decisions based on how they will affect the ‘us’ or ‘them’ groups in the company,” Feuer urges.
“Business is not a popularity contest,” Feuer concludes. “To make your move, you must listen and learn. Always study the consequences of your decisions from all perspectives – short-term, intermediate-term, and long-term – but learn to do so quickly and effectively. As time goes by, you’ll become better and more comfortable with making smart decisions.”
Michael Feuer cofounded OfficeMax in 1988 with $20,000, a partner and a small group of investors. He grew it to 1,000-plus stores and $5 billion in sales. He is CEO of the Max-Ventures venture capital and retail consulting firm, and founder/CEO of Max-Wellness, a health and wellness retail chain launched in 2010.
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