This article also appeared in Finweek Magazine in their 8-May-2014 issue
Management super-guru Peter Drucker said: “Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.” Good leaders aren’t afraid to make tough, unpopular and often counter-intuitive decisions. The decisions that prompt their critics to ask: “What were they thinking?” It is their courage in the face of criticism that makes them the leaders of their organisations, while others aren’t.
According to Andrew Feinstein, former ANC politician-turned-business advisor: “Such a leader is able to read a situation and realize that the best and seemingly most obvious outcome is not, in fact, a solution, but instead will compound the problem. An alternative solution may look strikingly improbable but it is in this improbability that its power lies. The leader then has to sell the unexpected outcome and, for this act of salesmanship, truth and absolute integrity are decisive attributes.”
Feinstein describes a powerful South African example relating to our beloved Madiba. In a move that was vehemently opposed by his more traditional ANC colleagues, Mandela started informal and clandestine discussions between the ANC and the apartheid government. He convinced his colleagues in jail, in exile and inside South Africa that negotiating with their enemies was the only way forward. In the end this strategy helped South Africa transition more peacefully into the post-apartheid era. Many businesses can learn from Mandela’s counter-intuitive decision-making in the face of strong criticism.
Sometimes these decisions will make others angry.
In his Leadership Primer, General Colin Powell famously said: “Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.”
“Good leadership involves responsibility for the welfare of the group, which means that some people will get angry at your actions and decisions. It’s inevitable, if you’re honourable. Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity: you’ll avoid the tough decisions, you’ll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted, and you’ll avoid offering differential rewards based on differential performance because some people might get upset.”
Early in my career, in an interview for one of my first jobs in clinical research, the HR manager asked me a challenging question: “Let’s say you became good friends socially with a work colleague Sally, while you were her manager. What would you do if you caught Sally stealing from the office?” I cannot remember exactly how I answered the question. But I must have given the wrong answer because she told me that I needed to take off my friend hat, to put on my manager’s hat and to fire Sally for stealing. Yes, Sally would probably never want to be friends with me again, but as manager I needed to act in the best interests of the company.
Not an easy thing for any manager to do. But it is exactly this kind of tough call that Powell is talking about.
Don’t get caught in the happy trap
Having those hard-hitting conversations and making tough decisions are far more crucial than keeping everyone happy. You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you cannot please all of the people all of the time. So stop trying to be Mr (or Mrs) Nice Guy and get over it. Leadership is not a popularity competition. Just like that HR manager drummed home to me in that job interview early in my career, don’t try to be everyone’s friend, and rather be the leader that your business needs. Colin Powell summed it up brilliantly when he said: “Ironically, by procrastinating on the difficult choices, by trying not to get anyone mad, and by treating everyone equally “nicely” regardless of their contributions, you’ll simply ensure that the only people you’ll wind up angering are the most creative and productive people in the organization.” And these are the A-players you cannot afford to lose.
As a leader facing a difficult situation, if you simplify things down to their absolute bare bones, usually there are only two choices: put your head in the sand ostrich-style and do nothing, hoping it will pass over. Or, make the tough decision that your gut is telling you is the right one, and deal with the critics and the heat that follows. Because it inevitably will.
On this point, mega-successful entrepreneur Richard Branson’s advice is to focus on your customers and ignore your critics. In a 2012 article on Entrepreneur.com, he explained with an example relating to South Africa: “It wasn’t just our team that occasionally worried about our stepping into tough markets. Over the years, our critics fretted about Virgin’s expansion into airlines, financial services and mobile phone services. … I rarely paid attention (which also drew criticism from some analysts). My answer was always to focus on the customer experience, ensuring that we offered the best service, most innovative products and best value.” This strategy worked particularly well for Virgin in the cellphone industry. Most providers still made their customers sign onerous contracts that cost them an arm and a leg to walk away from. With their pre-paid business model, Virgin disrupted the industry worldwide. And so their businesses expanded rapidly in the UK, Australia, Canada, South Africa the US and India, growing the Virgin customer footprint and their brand worldwide.
The South African FMCG/retail industry provides another powerful example of a courageous, counter-intuitive decision that got a lot of media attention. Sean Summers faced a damaging food-poison scare and made a tough, controversial call as the then-CEO of Pick ‘n Pay. In May-2003 Summers received an insured parcel. Inside were three items of food: Portuguese sardines, garlic flakes and chilli pilchards. There was also a letter stating that these items were poisoned and that, if Pick ‘n Pay did not pay a certain amount of money, the poisoned food items would soon be in Pick ‘n Pay stores. The extortionist warned Pick ‘n Pay not to alert the police or the media, threatening to put contaminated food into Pick ‘n Pay stores if they did. Courageously Summers chose to openly warn the public about the crisis. However this was only seven weeks after Pick ‘n Pay had first been warned, when a customer complained to its call centre about a “strange taste” when she ate a sardine from a Pick ‘n Pay can of Portuguese sardines. She then noticed “Poisonous, do not consume, contact Pick ‘n Pay immediately” penned on the label. After being admitted to hospital, the customer was found to be fine, and Pick ‘n Pay apologised. Pick ‘n Pay recalled all threatened items from Gauteng stores and customers got a full refund when returning the recalled items. In a Mail & Guardian article at the time, Summers asserted that Pick ‘n Pay would absorb the “substantial” cost of the crisis, including extra store security, without increasing prices. Some criticised Summers and Pick ‘n Pay for their seven week silence and waiting for a customer to eat poisoned food before alerting the public. Nevertheless, Summers was widely praised for his leadership and transparency during the crisis. South Africa’s top 100 companies chose him as business leader of the year.
Further afield, in the US, a courageous decision taken by Jim Parker, Southwest Airlines’ CEO at the time, enabled Southwest to disrupt the troubled airline industry. Following 9/11, the US government ordered all US airlines to ground their entire fleets and to shut down for days. The industry downturn led the three largest carriers American, United and Delta to cut almost 50,000 staff in 2001 alone. But not Southwest Airlines. Only three days after 9/11, Jim Parker, then-CEO of Southwest, declared a “no-layoffs” stance and instituted a profit-sharing plan for staff. A very gutsy thing to do, considering the turmoil facing the airline industry at that time. It sent a powerful message that he would protect his people through thick and thin, which ultimately built a stronger airline. Southwest went on to show a profit in Q3/2001. This was extraordinary, considering that other US airlines faced sizeable losses and declines in passenger traffic.
How do you know when a counter-intuitive decision will work in your favour? You don’t. You need to trust your instincts and try. In the same Entrepreneur.com article, Richard Branson talked about the numerous times he had led the Virgin team into markets that industry gurus warned them to steer clear of. “This was the case when we launched our airlines Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Blue (recently rebranded Virgin Australia), in 1984 and 2000, respectively. On both occasions, my fellow directors were nervous about our chances for survival, given the strengths of our competitors….Virgin Atlantic went from strength to strength, and now carries over 5 million passengers per year. In the case of Virgin Blue, …after launching the business with just two Boeing 737s, we have built Australia’s second biggest airline, and now have a fleet of nearly 90 planes.”
Yes, you can avoid criticism by choosing not to say or do anything. But strong leaders like Richard Branson of Virgin, Jim Parker of Southwest Airlines and Sean Summers of Pick ‘n Pay did not stand by and do nothing. They made the tough decisions and put themselves in the firing line during difficult times. And their companies ultimately triumphed because of it. Tim Ferriss, best-selling author of The 4-Hour Workweek, couldn’t have put it better when he said: “Let the critics criticize. It’s the builders who count.”