The Most Powerful Lesson I’ve Ever Learned In Business

One morning in the depths of the 2001/2002 recession, a decision was looming large at a crucial strategy meeting I had hurriedly called at our offices in Mountain View. It was one of those company defining decisions that come along every so often. And it was clear to all of us in the room that what we decided here would very likely determine whether our startup, Tellme Networks, would live or die.

I turned to one of my team members, a bright Harvard-educated business leader, and asked for his thoughts. He gave a crisp answer on why we should decide in the affirmative. I turned to another team member and asked for her thoughts. She had similar credentials and gave an equally thoughtful explanation of why we should decide in the negative. Two team leaders I respected, each more experienced than I was, were passionate about going in two totally different directions. Everyone turned and looked at me. The pressure was on and my team was divided.

We had been burning cash quickly and Tellme, a service we were well known for that let anyone pick up a phone, say what they wanted and get it (like Siri and Cortana today), was not going to get us to profitability anytime soon. As a result, we focused on selling access to the platform that powered Tellme. We became the world’s first cloud-based speech recognition platform for enterprises and carriers.

After months of hard work and focus we had won accounts like AT&T, Merrill Lynch, American Airlines, and FedEx. But this success inevitably caught the attention of AT&T, our single largest customer and early investor. They decided to compete with us and their executives presented us with an opportunity/ultimatum: license the Tellme platform to AT&T, switch from a cloud model to a software model and focus on the carrier market. They proposed a large upfront payment with an ongoing revenue commitment that would almost certainly swing our startup to profitability.

The decision was stark: finally reach profitability by drastically changing our business model OR double down on a nascent cloud-based business model, lose our largest customer, burn more cash and face a fearsome competitor. Complicating matters further, this was bound to be a deeply controversial situation internally and we risked fracturing our team no matter what we decided.

“You can question my judgement but not my integrity.” — Bill Campbell

There are a variety of ways to make a decision like this. Some leaders, especially founders, use a combination of instinct, passion, and force of personality. Other leaders rely on their sheer intellect, calmly espousing facts and figures that support the direction they think they should go. Still others rely on the power of their position (“I’m CEO so this is what we’re going to do”).

But there’s another way. It was taught to me by Bill Campbell, former CEO of Intuit and legendary coach to Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Ben Horowitz and many other founders. Bill had been coaching me on how to make decisions faster and better. This was a major area I needed to improve on. How could I make a decision when my team members had far more experience than I did (I don’t have a college education and this was my first venture-backed startup), especially when they disagreed with each other? How could I avoid endless debate? How could I break a tie in a credible way? How could I get everyone to support a decision once it was made, even if some didn’t agree with the outcome? How could I avoid my team thinking, “How does Mike know any better than us? He’s never been in this situation before.”

Bill said, “Well, look: I used to tell people, you can question my judgment, but you can’t question my integrity.” He explained that in rare cases you may have to make a judgment call but first you should start by agreeing with your team on what is definitively true about the situation and then let those facts guide your decision.

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