How To Make A Hard Call In Six Steps

For CEOs navigating a wrenching global economy running at web speed, the really hard calls—what markets to attack, which deals to chase, when to raise capital—might be harder than ever. Luckily we talked to battle-tested executives willing to relive their toughest calls. 

One such executive is Joni Fedders, President of Aileron. Founded by Iams pet-food billionaire Clay Mathile, Dayton, Ohio-based business boot camp Aileron aims to bring big-time management techniques to smaller companies, with instruction from business owners and experts (not academics). Clear decision-making is core to the curriculum, says Fedders, who outlines a six-step approach for tricky conundrums. “Don’t be afraid to go back a step or two, depending on what you discover,” she adds. “It’s an iterative process.”

Step 1.  Unwrite the rules. Think you can’t fire the owner’s son? Maybe you can. “We have a lot of rules in our heads,” says Fedders. They may no longer apply—or never did. Quiet your fears by questioning your assumptions.

Step 2. State the broader goal. Be perfectly clear about what you’re ultimately trying to accomplish. Is the goal to appease the owner—or to delight customers, hit growth targets and build a world-class company?

Step 3.  Define the decision. Executives get this one wrong a lot, says Fedders. The ostensible choice might be whether or not to fire the owner’s son—but it could be something else. Maybe his role should be redefined, or his performance incentives adjusted.

Step 4. Weigh the options. Brainstorm, analyze and estimate each path’s probability of achieving the broader goal—and at what cost. If the owner’s son was promoted without the necessary skills, maybe the best option, all variables considered, is to give him back his old job.

Step 5.  Make the call. You must not only execute the decision—be it drawing up a severance letter or rewriting a job description—but also let the team know you made it, and why. “Communicating the decision is as important as making it,” says Fedders.

Step 6. Assess the outcome. Post-mortems of big decisions are often muddy. “You can make numbers say anything you want,” warns Fedders. Personnel changes can be easier to assess, she adds: “You’ll know if meetings are more energized, or if people are hiding in their cubicles.”