Back in 1987, when I was hired by Jack Kent Cooke at the ripe young age of 27 to be the COO of a cable TV company, he wasted very little time to initiate me into the world of executive management.
During our very first meeting, before I could even take a sip of my first cup of coffee, Cooke looked me straight in the eye, and said
“My boy, there are two kinds of people in the business world, doers and thinkers. Which one will you be?”
At the time Cooke was a very successful serial entrepreneur, in the media and sports arenas. His overriding trait was impatience and dislike about extended debate and discussion about big decisions.
He never fooled around much with decision-making, even the big ones – he just made them. I’ll never forget the time in 1989 when he determined what to bid on a billion dollar acquisition in about 20 minutes (no misprint, it was 20 minutes).
Now it may sound like he was too impulsive, or reckless, our just plain crazy, but believe me, he wasn’t.
He simply had what the great leadership and business writer Tom Peters calls (in his great book “In Search of Excellence”) a “bias towards action“.
Or to put it another way, he “was a verb“. Inertia was his enemy. He knew that standing still was a losing strategy, and didn’t want to be passed up by the competition.
How do he and other great leaders develop this seemingly uncanny ability to make the right decisions so quickly?
There are four elements simple decision-making that I’ve observed and successfully brought into my own leadership practice over the last 31 years.
First, good decision makers get the right data in front of them at the right time.
For example, on Cooke’s billion dollar deal, he was able to decide in 20 minutes because he had developed a one-page analysis that cut to the core of the company’s potential, and therefore could point to a value that made sense to him. All he had to do was review it, ask a couple of questions, and BOOM!.
Of course, he had to trust that the data and analysis on that page was trustworthy and accurate, and that’s the second element to being a great doer – hiring the right “numbers people”.
I was the person responsible for that page, and you can bet I spent a LOT of time working on it, and cranked out a lot of spreadsheets to support it. Cooke hired me because of my financial background, and my ability to do the proper analysis -traits that were vitally important to his decision-making process.
Then, there’s the third element, the intangible. Guts.
Cooke had ’em in spades – he was fearless. He trusted his business instincts, and had the courage to manifest that trust in quick decisions. Getting over the fear of failure is paramount. In the business world, if you are a decision-maker, above all else you need to trust yourself.
Lastly, there’s the fourth element – organizational and structural simplicity.
Over my career I figured out that too much complexity in an organization, and too much data, can hamper the doers. Peters also noted this in “In Search of Excellence”. The successful companies were able to streamline to the point where they create
“action devises that simplify their systems and foster a restless organizational stance by clarifying which numbers really count or arbitrarily limiting the length of the goal list”.
The great companies were always able to get to the “one pager”, and get it to the right people at the right time, so the real doing could get done.
Peters so aptly sums up a bias toward action this way:
“Ready. Fire. Aim. Learn from your tries. That’s enough.”
And by the way, in case you are wondering, I answered Cooke’s question with an emphatic “I want to be a doer sir!”.
That choice on that day has served me well.
Which one will you be?