CEO stepped away so people can learn to make decisions
An IT company with a staff of 50 was trying to switch their decision-making approach to let employees make more decisions. To their surprise, the employees were reluctant to take ownership, instead they still held back, and looked to their bosses for direction. In the midst of this new endeavour, the company faced a financial crisis. This story tells how the company pulled through while at the same time forged a strong culture of ownership and commitment in the process.
At some point during the peer decision-making shift, the company found themselves at a financial crisis with only 1-2 month of financial runway left. The turning point happened when the CEO confronted the challenge using a new approach to decision making. Instead of having the CEO figure the situation out, the CEO chose to involve everyone in the company to sort the situation out. The CEO took it upon himself to facilitate the process, which involved creating decision making circles, clarifying their respective boundaries, the time window to act, and the competence that needed to be in each. The CEO took great care in choosing which decision-making circles and which meetings to attend. He deliberately kept away as much as possible to allow his colleagues to just step in and take over the decision-making opportunities he had used earlier. At the same time, he made sure that there were enough senior colleagues at each forum and that data was as transparent as possible so that there was enough knowledge at hand to make the decisions. One key shared decision was that everyone not involved in consulting was to participate in sales work. That was a tough change to make. But it was in making it happen that the new decision-making process proved itself. Since everyone took part in the process, everyone bought into the change.
The company found a way forward and little by little, people learned to take more responsibility. They stepped out of their professional roles and comfort zones and broadened their skills. For example, if a problem surfaced at a meeting after this change, the focus was always “what should be done? Let’s figure it out” instead of the earlier default approach of deferring the decision to someone else. Recruitment suddenly became easier. The word got around that people liked working there and that the atmosphere was different. Employees started to believe in the company so much that they recommended it to their friends and on social media! The final benefit that came about was trust and confidence among the employees. Now the real situation gets discussed and taken seriously, not just a narrow perspective tailored for what the audience wants to hear.
Sometimes, giving room and stepping back and telling it as it is can be the best kind of Agile leadership. Really difficult and challenging decisions impacting the survival of a company can be made by framing the decision-making process, clarifying the time frame where it needs to happen and making sure that the right people are actively participating. This can produce a culture shift with stronger ownership, commitment and belonging.