Monday, November 16, 2009

Decisions, Decisions

There’s this thing about being the boss. It’s not always as fun as it seems. When I was just starting out I thought - hey, when I make it to the top I can have the big office with the big chair and I can come and go as I please and that will be great. Well, now I sit in that office and I have that chair (I went and bought it on sale from a local Plummers) and I can come and go as I please, and it’s still not easy! When you’re the boss you really only have one job. It’s to make decisions...

I had a boss once who was a little insecure. He hated that the management team would get together and have candid conversations about the business, sometimes without him. He particularly hated that I seemed to disagree with him a lot. I was effective, so he never fired me, but I’m sure he got close. One night he scheduled a dinner with us and arrived late. We were used to this so we just went to the bar and had a drink. We were sitting around laughing about something when he arrived. He wanted to know what it was and it was one of those things where the story is long enough that the retelling would rob any humor. He naturally assumed we were laughing about him. (yes, this sadly happens even at my level).

He looked at me and said, you know what? I think you should be called the CEO because you’re running the place anyway. He was angry (no idea why) and he vented. I looked at him and said, “You don’t get it do you?” “You could call me the CEO or the COO or the CQO or whatever you want.” I was with the other “C” level staff so I pointed at all of them. “You could call each of them whatever you want, too, and it doesn’t matter.” “Do you know why?” He shook his head. “Because in the end you’re the CDO and we’re all COO’s.” Naturally he wanted to know what that meant.

“We’re all ‘Chief Opinion Officers,’ I said, and you’re the ‘Chief Decision Officer.’ You may not get that you actually pay us for our experience and the opinions we form about the business, but ultimately you make all the decisions. That’s your job. It’s my job to tell you when I disagree so I can keep you from looking like a fool if you’re wrong. That said, you tell me you want to go ahead and do something anyway and I turn around and tell my staff that that’s what we’re going to do because that’s what the company has decided...”

It’s really the one scary thing about making it to the top. In every other position failure can always be blamed on the guy upstairs. When you make it to the top the decisions are yours to make and the better you are at making decisions, the more effective you’ll be as an executive.

Two factors contribute to bad decisions. These are analysis paralysis and ego. Analysis paralysis is caused by especially tough decisions. Most decisions are easy. There is a clear black or white. But every once in a while you get one of those ... A decision where no matter what you decide people are going to be upset. Mature leaders get this and they also understand that in any organization making decisions sooner rather than later is better. Less angst and less frustration while you decide. Less posturing, less emotion sown into one position or another and ultimately less risk. Ego gets in the way because it makes it harder for the leader to hear the opinions of the people whose opinions count. Eventually, these people will stop voicing their opinions or leave. The organization will likely fail.

I cannot imagine what it must be like to be President of the United States. I have an Ego to be sure, but I would simply never want that job under any circumstances. I voted for this President. I did so for reasons clarified earlier on this blog, reasons relating to concerns around Senator McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin. I also had a hope that with his election some of the angst around the US’s position in the world and some of the angst and bitterness at home would subside. My party has done little to help with any of this and it was clear to me that a change needed to occur. Some of these things have happened and I think there is some good emerging. That said though, there is no question that I also have a concern.

I see the signs of analysis paralysis on the economy and more so on Afghanistan. Both of these issues are large and complex. For what it’s worth, the economy has always been more or less ambivalent about the President. Parties love to take credit or place blame based on the market, but the market largely determines its own course. There are things that politicos can do or say that mess it up, but these situations are usually short lived.

War, and in this case Afghanistan is another matter. The challenge is that there is no right answer. If we send more troops it will cost more, some of them will die and there is no guarantee that things will get better. If we bring everyone home there is no question that Afghanistan will fall back into economic, political and social turmoil. It is the playground of terror. The terrain, tribal influences and well placed fear prevalent in the general population mean that the country will likely retreat to where it was before. It is a nation that has never known real peace for long and then only under the hand of tyrants.

Personally I believe that we must commit more troops to Afghanistan. If it were up to me I would commit a LOT more. Here’s why. I think it’s a chicken and egg thing. I think that some of the socio-political sunrise we saw after the recent fall - women regaining their social losses during the Taliban reign when they suffered unspeakable atrocity, an emerging freedom of religion espousing a truer form of Islam and an emerging appreciation for the arts and sport that generally leads to cultural emergence, were real. Afghans were hopeful that the US would stick it out this time and they were willing to help. To be sure, Karzai is an ineffective leader, but the recent elections and the pull out of any opposition is more about a concern that the US will leave then about anything else.

Those who say that we should leave Afghanistan to the Afghans are naive. Millions upon millions of dollars flow into the country from terror oriented nations. These funds, along with the ragged bands of immigrants whose activities they make possible serve to destabilize the native population’s attempts at autonomy. There is only one country on earth that will actually conquer a country in order to set it free. That’s this one. That’s our mission there and it’s a mission worth pursuing because it would signal hope to all oppressed people everywhere that the United States is not just interested in foreign oil and a christian ideology. We have nothing to gain from a peaceful Afghanistan except a peaceful Afghanistan.

Terror is rooted in poverty. Poverty is rooted in economic and social instability. We’ve messed up in the past by assuming that if we simply take the guns away terror will also fade. The only way to truly address those factors in Afghanistan is to create a peaceful nation where the people have the power to determine their own future, and where the international community understands that investment is safe and where these investments can begin to create an economy powerful enough to overwhelm poverty and where these factors can be sustained long enough that a generation rises believing that its future is in its own hands.

What’s next Mr. President? This one’s not easy. I get that. No answer will make everyone happy. There is always more analysis that can be done. There are always questions whose answers may be debated. In the end sir, you’re the chief decision officer. This one’s a doozy to be sure. It’s time to step up and make a call. Your opinion officers are counting on it.



Christine Lee Smith Photography said...

Thanks for your post - a lot is resonating with me, from the need in Afghanistan to The relationship between COO's and CDO's. Great insight. Thanks for posting.

Misty Miotto said...

Promise us you won't leave us to become some big time best selling author Jim! :0) You have a gift for writing but I already told you that at Partnercon! I mean it . Thank you for sharing! Misty

Jeff said...

Love your take on COO vs CDO - that's some great food for thought :) Thanks for the insight, Jim (as always).