Companies turn to their leaders to make the big decisions — the judgement calls that can affect thousands of employees and customers. I’ll tell you from experience — it’s easy to get stuck in analysis paralysis. The fear of making the wrong move can be a massive weight on a leader or a team.
When I joined Northwestern Mutual three years ago, one of my first tasks was to help launch a new client website. It would be an immense undertaking and core to reinventing the company’s client experience.
Like most significant technology projects, we held a number of “go / no go” decision meetings, making the final calls on whether to deploy the significant work of the team. Huddled in a conference room, we were on a call with various stakeholders who were raising significant questions about launching the site: “What if it fails? What if people hate it?” The weight of the decision was clear. But this was a critical project — with a clear business case.
Here are the five things that helped me work through the decision and be confident in our direction, which I apply toward every important decision I make.
1. I Trust My Team
I believe that we hire smart people and we should empower them. It starts with a clear view of what role or problem we are hiring for, and finding the person who is the best fit for that role.
Not only will they be capable of doing the job, but they will also be able to work independently. Get them in the door and let them fly. When people prove themselves time and again, there is no reason to be nervous. That trust helps me as a leader and also helps build trust across the team as well.
2. I Remain Calm
Panic can easily cascade in an organization and create an unpleasant working environment. The best thing I can do for my team is walk into every meeting with a sense of peace. Simple things like smiling and asking how people are feeling go a long way.
The business benefit of keeping your team dynamics calm is that it allows people to try new things and develop ideas without fear of being reprimanded if they fail. Moreover, you’ll help them shine. During a recent meeting, I noticed one person on my team was visibly nervous to get up in front of a large audience, and so I asked her about her weekend and her kids until she forgot she was about to walk on stage. She killed it in the presentation. Being a calm leader can help keep the team calm as well.
3. I Try to Solve Problems Before They Escalate
It’s inevitable that something will go wrong at some point. That’s life. But before an issue brews until it’s seemingly unsolvable, I try to remain proactive to tackle it early on.
A few years ago, we had launched a new paperless feature on the website when I received a call from one of the company’s financial advisors. He was extremely upset about the change. He said the feature was difficult for his clients to use and for his team to decipher who is selecting paper versus paperless for their documents.
Instead of ignoring this one comment, the team and I huddled over the next few weeks to think through alternatives to make this feature easier. We even paused on releasing other features in the interim — and it’s good that we did because in that time we got one call after another from advisors about the same concern. We could have let this one comment go, but by listening, we were able to address broader concerns much faster.
This experience led to our forming a Product Specialist Team. This team helps field feedback by engaging with our advisors proactively and parsing the feedback to determine whether it’s something we should bring to the team for consideration.
We could have let this one comment go, but by listening, we were able to address broader concerns much faster.
4. I Keep Things in Perspective
In the moment, it’s easy to worry about what might happen if you mess up.
My son recently had a soccer game at school against the best team in the nation. The week leading up to it, he was worried sick about how he’d perform, what if they lose, what if he embarrasses himself? We had a quick father-son chat over apple juice and walked through the worst-case scenario — losing the game.
So we talked about the fact that there will still be many other games in the future. He recognized that his friends would probably be talking more about the videogame Fortnite than the game. My wife also chimed in about how lucky he is to get to play soccer and that not every kid has this opportunity, especially in other parts of the world.
My son’s team did lose the game. When we asked him how he feels about it, he said, “Who cares? It’s just a game. Sometimes in life you win and sometimes you lose.” My wife and I smiled at each other. It’s good to have high standards, but keep a clear perspective at the same time.
That’s how I want my team to approach challenges as well — keep things in perspective and don’t get worked up over the small stuff.
5. I Take Care of My Mind and Body
The best way to stay calm and collected is take care of your mind and body. I am an avid podcast listener on topics such as product, digital, cooking and sports. My morning commute is filled with learning something new.
One of my business partners had been stressed about work and it was getting to him. I knew he was a big runner and so the next week we changed our lunch get-together to the gym. I told him one rule, which is that we stop talking about his project and talk about family and personal stuff during our run instead. Afterward, he said he felt great and that it got his mind off from his worries.
For a year now, we have gotten together once a week for a run and it’s been a great way for both of us to take care of ourselves as we juggle work and family obligations.
Take care of yourself and encourage your team to do the same thing.
So what about the big client website launch that I referenced at the beginning?
Three years later, it has been a clear success and we have continued to make regular releases to continually enhance the experience. We move forward in the face of uncertainty, but it was the right calculated risk and has helped the team confidently approach other big projects.
What helps prepare you to make a big decision at work or at home? Let me know.