Conventional thinking has suggested that leadership positions go to those who aggressively plan their careers with a keen eye for building the right skills to reach top jobs. Others believe that leaders are born, not made. But according to research one of us (Julia) conducted for her book Pivot Points, the key differentiator between the career arc of someone who becomes a successful business leader and the average person is consistency in how the person makes major decisions.
In-depth one-on-one interviews with five recognized leaders who have been operating CEOs in five different industries—PR (Al Golin), health care (Glen Tullman), finance (John Rogers), social enterprise (Dale Dawson), and marketing (Bud Frankel)—revealed that their leadership development occurred in a process far more organic than career planning. Each one made a number of pivotal decisions with unwaveringly strong accountability and ingenuity that triggered learning and growth.
A further survey of 500 college-educated individuals in professional careers supported this finding and identified inclusiveness in the decision-making process as the key differentiator of leadership. Specifically, respondents were asked to indicate their degree of agreement on a five-point scale with 40 statements of various decision-making behaviors they used at different career decision points. A variable cluster analysis found strong agreement with the following three statements as the behaviors that distinguished decision making with leader-like accountability and ingenuity:
Note that this inclusive process is not decision-making by committee or by consensus. It’s the process of constant connection with respected experts and stakeholders, which enables them to recognize business opportunities and threats, and figure out how to adapt or take advantage of them. Habitual outreach prevents insular thinking, opens doors to ideas and collaborative relationships, expands problem-solving perspectives, and increases the range of resources for implementation. Most importantly, it enables real-time adjustments that improve outcomes. This inclusive approach takes 360 degrees of context into account, thereby ensuring better decisions and a higher chance of successful implementation.
In its full context, the study asserts that, over time, leaders who follow this inclusive process progressively stand out from the crowd. Consider the story of Bud Frankel, the founder of Frankel, a firm that created the marketing services industry (where both of us eventually worked) that gained a national reputation and attracted clients across both the consumer and healthcare areas.
As a leader in his company, Bud used what he called “Management by Wandering Around” (MBWA), where he’d stop into offices and ask the opinions of employees, clients, and others to gather insights about his organization and clients. He made it comfortable for people to give him contradictory advice and bad news. In doing so, he discovered major flaws in the company that called for radical change. One such issue was years of growing discord between himself and his partner, Marv Abelson, and its divisive impact on the organization. “We were an ‘us’ team when we started out. Then competition between us brought out insidious kind of stuff—that’s my designer, that’s my copywriter, why isn’t your guy billing as much as my guy, all kinds of stuff,” Bud recalled while being interviewed for the book. “We were Abelson-Frankel, yet operated as two separate agencies.”
Bud sought outside counsel on the fairest way to fix the issue, namely, to break up the partnership. Various perspectives he obtained helped him clarify his options and enabled rational decisions for all parties to focus on moving forward. He came up with two workable options: to buy or sell. Bud’s partner decided to sell and got cash, as well as the opportunity to hire any employee for his new agency.
With the purchase of Abelson’s shares, Bud invested all of his efforts to galvanize clients and employees around one vision and one leader. He took full ownership for the implementation of the decision, explaining his thinking and the implications to those affected. He encouraged feedback—even if the subordinate and clients disagreed with him—monitored the company’s progress and the results, and changed course when necessary. “Mostly I looked at the people and saw how they were doing and feeling,” Bud said told us in conversation. “I based a lot of decisions on the staff. If the staff were uncomfortable with a decision, I’d look at it.” What’s more, he would openly admit his mistakes, even apologizing at times to employees who expressed disagreement with his decisions when they did not turn out as hoped.
As the agency grew, Bud appointed an agency leadership team and focused his energies on scaling up the company’s unique value proposition. Bud continued to use MBWA to randomly drop in on meetings and pepper others with questions and stories, prodding them to create the breakthrough ideas that actually worked in the marketplace. He also formalized an outside advisory board of business leaders, thus ensuring that future leaders of the company would also get feedback on important leadership decisions.
Bud’s inclusive approach kept him constantly connected with the pulse of his clients, employees, and the marketplace, and helped him decide on the ways to professionalize the marketing services industry and start his agency. Near the end of his career, it also helped him decide to sell Frankel. Through his ever-broadening perspective, he led Frankel to develop many firsts, including the first worthy cause promotion and the first to use computer graphics in advertising. It helped his own career to grow from a commission-based salesperson to a global, industry-changing business leader, marketing legend, and later, philanthropist.
In today’s fast-paced environment of dramatically changing technologies and global forces, leaders need to understand how to make the right decisions the right way. By making use of those around you in understanding the situation, weighing a variety of options, and explaining the decision to stakeholders, leaders can make better decisions and set themselves up for future success.
By Laurence Minsky and Julia Tang Peters
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