One of the most frightening things about running a business is the unpleasant fact that all decisions, easy or hard, come down to you. You can get advice from mentors, investors, and outside experts, and you can invite key employees to share in the decision process. But the final analysis, the responsibility is yours.
As president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, my situation was a little different, since there were 14 other board members voting on every major issue. Still, a lot of decisions rested in my hands, including that of leading discussion about the issues and deciding when to vote. So I felt very much in the spotlight when, towards the end of my term, we received a proposal to have ASJA managed by an association management firm. If we agreed, it would end more than 60 years as a stand-alone, self-managed organization.
It was a hard decision. Our executive director was in favor of making the move, as were the incoming president and vice president. But I still wasn't sure we should go forward. In fact, I found myself mentally stuck.
There was no option to stall the decision, otherwise I might have done that. But because we needed to move out of our offices we knew we had to take action quickly, either signing with the management firm (which would bring us into its offices) or find another place. I had no choice--I had to make the decision quickly.
It's never easy to make a decision that is likely to have long-term consequences. Here are the steps that helped me:
1. Gather all the info you can.
That won't necessarily give you all the information you need to make your choice. In fact, most decisions are made with less information than would be ideal. But tip the odds in your favor by finding out whatever you can.
In our case, we researched a large number of association management companies and talked with leaders of associations managed by those companies. It gave us a good view of what could go wrong, and also a lot of confidence that the company we were considering was the best fit for us.
One caveat: If you don't already have a deadline, be sure to put a time limit on your information-gathering, otherwise it can turn into an excuse for not deciding.
2. Don't ignore your instincts.
I'm a big believer in data-driven decisions. But there will always be times when your research points you in one direction but your gut instincts point you in another. That happened to me with the decision to sign with the association management company. Although every other client we talked to had high praise for the firm we were considering, and the deal they were offering was very favorable, my instincts screamed that it would be wrong to give up our autonomy and let another company take the reins.
3. But examine your own biases as well.
It's important to take a long hard look at the ingrained thought processes that might be pushing you in one direction or another. I had to ask myself: Why were my instincts telling me to say no to the management company? Was it wisdom accumulated during my years on the board? Or was it that I feared change with all the uncertainty it brings?
The more I thought about it, the more I concluded that I was afraid of change. In my defense, this was a very big change, and one that might prove difficult to undo. Still, realizing it was my fear pushing me to say no really brought the decision into focus. I decided to support the move.
4. Once you've made the decision, don't look back.
You'll only wind up torturing yourself and frustrating the people who work for you. It's a lot easier to follow a leader who may be going in the wrong direction than one who doesn't seem sure which way to go. So once you've made a choice, don't second-guess it.
5. Own the decision.
Part of being a leader is publicly taking responsibility for your decisions and expressing confidence, even if you're full of trepidation. I decided it was important to publicly own the decision to move to a management firm so members would know they could praise me or blame me depending how things went.
The contract wasn't ready for signature till a day or two before the end of my term. I could have passed it off to the new president, and it would have made things a lot easier. But I decided to be the one to sign it. And I asked the incoming president to join me in a joint statement to our members so they would know we both believed it was the best thing to do.
6. Commit to making it work.
Once the decision is made, it's important to commit to it, and to doing whatever's needed to make your chosen course successful. Whether you followed this course of action with great enthusiasm or desperate uncertainty doesn't matter. Once you're on a path you have to walk it to the best of your ability.
It helps to bring others in as well. I was fortunate that other ASJA board members immediately went to work with the new management company and began holding regular phone meetings to bring our organizations into as much sync as possible.
7. Know your exit strategy.
Doesn't that contradict everything I've just said about commitment? No it doesn't. In every business situation, however committed you are to success, you should always have a Plan B. Leaving the management company--if we ever need to--won't be easy. Nevertheless, we put as many fail safes as we could into our contract to make leaving as painless as we could.
Fortunately, it appears we won't need to use them. The weekly meetings with our new president and vice president were my first indication that this relationship is likely to succeed, and after we've gotten through a regional conference and a strategic planning session with their support, I can see they are going to be a huge asset. It wasn't an easy decision, but it looks like we made the right one.