WHAT constitutes a tough call? It’s got nothing to do with the scale of a decision – it can be easy enough to decide to buy or sell a company. Nor has it much to do with immediate circumstances – tough calls can crop up in good times as well as bad. No. In my view what characterises a tough call is that, quite simply, it’s a decision that other people don’t want to make. It may be that they’re intimidated by the scale of it. Or that they feel that they don’t have enough information to go on. Or that they’re terrified to get it wrong. Or that they think there could be several ways forward and they don’t know which one to pick. Whatever the reason, it’s left to a handful of people, and particularly the person at the top, to decide what to do.
And what is worrying is how little help most aspiring managers are given with preparing for those tough calls they will invariably have to make at some point. There seems to be a view that you can just learn on the job. Well, yes, to a certain extent, and I’ve certainly learned a huge amount from decisions that I’ve got wrong or had to modify. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t useful approaches you can pick up or danger signs and patterns that you can learn to recognise.
Take companies in crisis, for example. One thing that has always struck me is how frequently in cases where things go badly wrong the only people who don’t seem to be aware of the scale of the problem or have an inkling of a solution are those at the centre of things. They seem to become paralysed by self-delusion and the fog of battle. And yet, paradoxically, it is precisely those occasions when there is a crisis that the diagnosis and the cure tend to be relatively easy to pinpoint. If a company is losing a lot of money, you look to see where the haemorrhage is. If people aren’t buying your product, you go out and ask them why. It often really is as simple as that.
Good decision-making requires clarity of thinking. For successful companies, it goes hand in hand with a quality of creative paranoia that makes those in charge take nothing for granted and constantly look for potential problems ahead. And while good leaders are often very different from one another, I have constantly been struck in the course of my career how their approach to making tough calls often has much in common – they listen to others, but know ultimately the buck stops with them; they get the best information they can but don’t allow it to overwhelm their ability to make a decision; they do not shy away from making difficult calls or having difficult conversations; they know that they will not get every decision right (if you achieve 70 per cent you’re doing well); when things go wrong they learn and move on.
At a time when there are so many tough calls to make, knowing how to make them has never been more important.
Allan Leighton’s new book, Tough Calls: Making the Right Decisions in Challenging Times is available now, published by Random House, £18.99. All author proceeds from this book will go to Breast Cancer Care.