The Road to Success Is Paved with Hard Choices

“Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life.” – Jerzy Gregorek

In every domain, the more data points you collect, the more insight you gain. This is because more information makes pattern identification easier. As a coach, I’ve built a unique perspective across years, economies, industries, clients, and scenarios that enables me to discern patterns most leaders struggle to spot.

One of the most challenging patterns for leaders to detect is the connection between their decisions and the ensuing long-term outcomes. Decisions that drive immediate results—say, choosing a scoop of mocha chip ice cream rather than strawberry—come easily and with very little noise because the effects are right there in front of you (Mocha Chip! Yum!). Decisions with bigger implications for your business and your life, however (like the cumulative effect of choosing between ice cream and an apple every night after dinner) require taking a step back to analyze the pattern correlating the daily choice with the probability of a long-term outcome. But in a business context this can be extremely difficult, if not impossible to spot from the trenches as you operate your organization on any given day, week, or month. The time delay between your decisions and the outcomes, which may span months or even years with all sorts of other noise along the way prevents you from seeing what works and what doesn’t.

As I wrote in my first book Activators, we are masters of procrastination and avoidance, usually to the detriment of what we want to accomplish. With the accrual of pattern recognition over the past twenty years as a coach, I’ve concluded that when leaders face a decision and choose to pursue the “easy” option, it’s far more likely to present future challenges than choosing the more “difficult” alternative instead.

To illustrate and to encourage you to select the more “difficult” path more often, let’s explore the five most common areas where I see leaders choose the “easy” route to the detriment of their team, their firm, and themselves.

1. Providing Hard Feedback

Providing hard feedback is challenging even for seasoned, experienced leaders. One of the leaders on a client executive team I coach oversees a group of professional managers. There’s a manager on his team (we’ll call him Burt) whose ego is in the way of his ability to relate to clients, staff, and peers, diminishing his ability to do his job effectively. The other managers in the group feel like Burt isn’t a team player; instead, it’s always all about him.

On a recent call, I asked my client, “Have you ever had this conversation with Burt?” “Well,” he said sheepishly, “I’ve danced around it, but I haven’t ever delivered the feedback directly.”

My client has avoided providing meaningful feedback to Burt. He dreads the discomfort of sharing his and others’ observations, and worries that Burt—who has massive potential in his role—may choose to leave. He’s made the easy decision so far (avoidance), and the problem has grown worse over time.

The good news is that my client is very receptive to feedback and change. I coached him on how to provide caring, very direct, hard feedback to Burt. There’s no doubt in my mind that the conversation will occur, and that there will be one of two outcomes:

The first possibility is that Burt will be upset about the feedback and refuse to improve, ultimately creating a different kind of problem to be resolved. Based on everything I know about him, that’s unlikely. The second, more probable outcome is that Burt will be receptive to the coaching and work to change his behavior.

By making the hard choice today – confronting his fear and embarking on a direct and difficult conversation – the team, the firm, Burt, and my client will all experience a better future.

2. Removing Non-Fit and Underperforming Staff

Of course, not every employee relationship can be salvaged with a tough conversation. Occasionally, the hardest and best decision is the one to say goodbye.

Another client of mine employs an extremely senior and high-performing sales professional (we’ll call her Lisa) who has struggled for years to collaborate with others. Because Lisa is so senior, she’s been placed in numerous roles, managing teams over the past eight years and every time it’s ended poorly for the company and for her personally. Sure enough, she’s managing yet another team now and things are not heading in the right direction. In fact, her management—or lack thereof—is creating irritation and inflammation in an organization that is otherwise performing at an extremely high level.

Just the other day, I once again raised this recurring issue with my CEO client. “At some point, you’re going to get tired of being on the treadmill with Lisa, and you’re going to need to do something about it. There’s no scenario in which she’s going to change.”

My client was afraid; Lisa generates a significant amount of business. And yet, by making the easy decision to retain a non-fit employee, the CEO has created continual headaches for himself and his team over nearly a decade. The hard decision to remove Lisa from the firm will yield a much brighter set of outcomes all around. Although the jury’s still out on this matter, I’m confident my client will come around and make the hard, right choice for the sake of the rest of his team.

If you’ve been avoiding a similar decision, consider this your sign to move forward and take the harder path.

3. Upgrading the Team

As any business scales, it becomes increasingly likely that the people who helped the business reach its current state won’t be the right ones to advance it to continually higher levels of sophistication and performance. It’s not because they’re underperforming or even because they’re a poor fit for their roles; it’s because the demands of a scaling business are likely to eventually exceed their prior experience and capabilities. In other words, the business outgrows them.

In this situation, many leaders take the easy route. They feel loyal to those who have been with them from the beginning, unconsciously deny reality, and convince themselves that the person currently in the role will figure it out. But the reality is that failing to acquire more seasoned talent denies the firm and rest of the staff the opportunity to accelerate and grow.

I’ve seen leaders take this particular easy route time and time again, keeping their current team and sacrificing the firm’s potential in the process. I’ve also seen others make the hard choice to acquire highly seasoned leaders and experience an absolute transformation as a result. They achieve more, more rapidly than they ever thought possible!

By making the hard decision to upgrade their team and taking some relationship risk to do it, leaders create an easier and brighter future than those who don’t.

4. Holding Others Accountable

Sometimes the hardest decisions come in the form of holding others accountable. I began working with a client several years ago immediately after their organization had merged with another large entity, resulting in two very different cultures that were smashed together rather than thoughtfully integrated.

I was hired by the CEO to help the leadership team gel and develop a culture that would enable the firm to grow and scale. The team played along and, among other things, defined their core values and the specific behaviors that would be required in the new culture. However, the senior leaders were fearful of holding people accountable to the new standard.

They were grappling with the usual factors that influence us to choose the easier route: fear of broaching the conversation itself or that top performers would quit if they told them the behavioral expectations were shifting. Ultimately, the leaders realized they didn’t have a choice, thanks to the CEO’s leadership and non-negotiable stance on the direction of the firm.

The hard decision was made.

I coached them to use several methods and processes to hold their people accountable and they began doing the difficult work with the knowledge that their efforts would lead to vastly different and better outcomes for the business. As expected, most employees accepted the new cultural norms and a minority of others refused. Over time, they either left on their own or were asked to leave.

By forcing the issue, the culture—and work—became easier and more harmonious firmwide. Today, this company is significantly larger than when I began working with them, their culture is a significant differentiator in their industry that helps attract top tier talent, and they’ve built one of the strongest and most successful cultures of all the clients in my coaching portfolio.

5. Selecting Priorities

Hard decisions aren’t limited to personnel.

Fortune favors the focused: If you have more than one or two priorities for your business this year, you have too many. You might make progress on many different fronts, but the odds are you won’t fully complete the one or two things that are essential to accelerate profitability and growth.

This concept comes with a learning curve. I’ve never met a new client who wasn’t challenged by having too many things on their plate. There are a host of reasons as to why too many priorities make it onto their list, including failing to make other hard decisions from a misplaced sense of loyalty to others, to over-weighting the input of people who are out of their depth relative to the sophistication of the organization.

When you acquiesce and say “yes” to six or four or ten (!) different priorities, you’re probably not going to get any of them done because you’re diluting the organization’s ability to focus and execute. Meanwhile, when you make the hard decision to focus on just one or two, putting aside what seems pressing to make sure the truly vital priorities get your full attention, you ultimately accomplish a lot more and accelerate the progress of the business.

Conclusion: Choose Wisely

“Life is a matter of choices, and every choice you make makes you.”  – John C. Maxwell

The patterns linking easy decisions to challenging outcomes and hard decisions to better outcomes are unmistakable and universal.

While identifying your organization’s patterns while you’re enmeshed in the day-to-day may be beyond the realm of possibility without the perspective of a mentor, a peer group, or a coach, the following keep-it-simple approach will work for most:

Listen to your emotions and begin leaning into hard things more deliberately.

If you don’t, you’ll continue to gain the small, immediate rewards that come with letting yourself off the hook today at the expense of a more difficult road ahead. If you do, you’ll experience both personal growth and some short term adversity in exchange for a much better tomorrow for days, weeks, and years to come.

The decisions are yours. Make them wisely.

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