How far do your decisions reach? Running a company, your decisions extend the lifetime of the company – or cut it short. Understanding how you create a long-term impact is vital. That’s about more than making a string of good decisions. It’s not even about ‘strategic decision-making’. You need to hold to the right timeframe.
Timeframe changes decisions.
Recently, my client’s executive team started talking about saving costs. There was tension in the air. This was the first time this group had come together and many were new to the business or their roles.
Except Marcus, the CFO of ten years (and three CEOs) and an old hand at such conversations. He was clear. To meet the budgetted profit the Board wanted, would call for a cut in costs; not just running costs, but capital investment costs. It was a cogent argument. The business would save $5 million in cash flow in this year alone. He was just a little bit triumphant as he finished his presentation. On past form, the cuts would get the nod from the CEO despite grumbling from the rest of the team.
Amanda the CIO wasn’t so happy. For the third year in a row her capital investment requests looked like being cut back. She had argued as best she could. Reliability, obsolescence, project delivery would all suffer, but the executive team still seemed to favour the budget cuts. (The positive impact on annual executive bonuses might have played a part in their thinking!) She sat back from the table, arms crossed. This was the picture of a woman thinking of leaving the group – an executive ready to seek a role elsewhere.
Yet, I was in the room with them to help them become better at their roles, as executives. We had started to confront the enormity of what that meant. This was the first meeting of the whole group in a year. The new CEO called it as he wanted to get a supportive team to help him with the challenges they faced but had to reverse the ‘divide & conquer’ style of his predecessor.
The team had already agreed that coming together to argue for resources might be appropriate in the weekly management meetings, but meeting as an Executive Team called for something different. And here we had it.
The CEO turned to me.
‘What’s your observation, Sean?’
Untangling the knot.
Now, as an observer/coach, I’m not a member of the team. I don’t have certain rights that come with that. But I do have certain advantages, one of which is being able to see the group in ways that are impossible when you are a member. This results in some questions that help untangle the decision-making knots.
What exactly is the executive timeframe?
The executive timeframe is not the management timeframe. It’s the whole-of-strategy timeframe, not just this year’s budget. When you reach out that far, you find the reason for taking a hit this year and make a better strategic decision. You make the decision that has the best long-term impact for the organisation.
The executive team also needs to disentangle itself from the annual cycle and look at the natural cycles of the business. In servicing two main industries, my client’s company had two cycles, one very long-term in resources, with very large clients and another much shorter, with a short response time to customer needs.
The units the leaders managed had conflicting cycles. But as executives they had to make decisions for the company as a whole.
So by separating the executive, strategic timeframe from the management one and by acknowledging the natural clash of customer cycles, the executive was able to make a more complex, but much more reality-based decision about IT investment.
Who shares the big issues and who derails them?
Later, the CEO and I were able to reflect on what happened in terms of the personalities around the table.
Some got it and let go of their managerial agenda to work at the strategic level.
Some pretended to get it and made the right noises in the meeting, but came to the CEO afterwards to argue the issue all over again – with a short-term agenda.
And some simply didn’t get it. They kept bringing the discussion back to the original, managerial-level conflict.
This helped the CEO identify who were his core team – those sharing his strategic level of concern for the organisation. The others would be given time to develop but were not part of the succession plan that the CEO was developing for the Board.
In effect, without reframing their decision-making approach, their careers would go stagnant or shrivel up.
How to avoid shrivelling up
Even if you do not write or control the organisation’s strategy, there is a strategy for which you are solely responsible. This is your career strategy. The key tasks are
- Create a career strategy. This means having a strategic intent (the difference you want to make), a way to stay in touch with market reality (through your community), and a decision about what talents you want to develop (through self-directed learning).
- If you don’t have the data to feel certain about an issue, take a view and defend it unless you are persuaded by new data or your colleagues’ expertise. Don’t just sit back at the meeting and leave it to others. What’s the direction of IT over the next 5 years? Who knows, but do your own research and develop a position you can argue rationally.
- Align with the organisation’s timeframe. Either fit your strategy to align with the career pathway that’s possible in the organisation or create a plan to contribute what you can, develop a successor and craft a healthy exit. Work openly with the CEO and the strategic HR person.
- Stay in touch with your passions, the work that gives you meaning and the people that matter to you.
- Reach across the organisation and learn about the other areas in depth. This is the making of a leader.
- Bite the bullet at executive meetings and put things in place for the long term, even if you have to forego some benefits today. Choose your battles and stay in touch with your long-term intent.
There’s plenty of pressure to stay stuck to short-term patterns even at the top level in organisations, especially in volatile interconnected markets. It takes reflection, time and discipline to maintain a timeframe that gives you strategic breathing room and informs your daily decisions.