Business leaders have always been scrutinized for their decision making. In 1914, Henry Ford was both denounced as a fool and praised for doubling wages of factory employees from $2.34 to $5 per day. In 1987, Merck & Company decided to give away a cure for river blindness for free, an unfathomable choice for most pharmaceuticals, because they recognized the cost of the drug would be too high for impoverished international markets.
Today, entire industries are emerging in the span of just a few years and with public scrutiny heightened to unprecedented levels, senior executives must be more conscious than ever of their decisions. How can business leaders remain confident they are hitting the bullseye while being confronted with difficult options when there is so little precedent for the modern business world?
Even in the pragmatic world of business, it can help to look to philosophers for guidance. Ruth Chang makes a compelling argument in her TED talk on difficult choices, encouraging the recognition that even small, seemingly unsubstantial selections can be challenging. Using a choice between oatmeal and a chocolate donut as an example, she explains: “One is better for you and the other tastes better, but neither is better overall.”
Essentially, Ruth is suggesting we rely on our values. Values should set the standard for what is acceptable and important in one’s life. If one’s purpose in life is to become the best version of him or herself, and they value being healthy, they might choose the oatmeal. If one’s purpose is to live a fun and exciting life and they value personal enjoyment, they might choose the donut. Neither is inherently right or wrong, but each fit differently into each own’s unique purpose and values.
Missing from these powerful discussions is an important but daunting reality: How does one navigate difficult choices when presented with many compelling options? Even more significantly: How does one navigate difficult choices when there are no suitable options?
Make Difficult Hiring Decisions
Both scenarios arise routinely in the executive search industry. Sometimes, companies have two or three outstanding candidates and must choose the best one. It’s a great problem to have, but it still forces a difficult decision. Long term, selecting a candidate based on their values ensures they will contribute and remain in alignment with the organization for several years. As a result, the leadership team has better chemistry, the quality of work is higher, everyone is happier while working harder and turnover decreases. To reach this point, an organization will have to reflect on the culture and team within the group’s values to make hitting the bullseye much more likely.
On the other side, companies have decided none of the candidates are close enough to the bullseye and they must work together to re-target their focus. In executive search, this inevitably means getting even more granular to find candidates who fit the company’s needs and expectations. Overwhelmingly, this means finding candidates that more closely align with the values and purpose paramount to success for that organization.
When faced with a set of bad options, usually the best approach is to take a step back and establish a path that will lead to better outcomes. This might mean selecting an interim leader and patiently spending more time looking for the right fit, or perhaps looking internally to see if someone in the organization has the potential to grow into the role with the right level of coaching. It is generally better to cease fire rather than shoot hastily and miss wildly.
If a team or leader hasn’t performed a thoughtful reflection on the purpose and values of the organization and the necessary leadership competencies to achieve those goals, choosing the best candidate can be like shooting an arrow blindfolded. The arrow might hit something, but is not likely to hit the bulls-eye. The more an organization practices analysis and internal reflection, the closer to the team’s values (the center of the target) the best options will be, even in a rapidly changing world.