Fast and Now

With seniority comes the opportunity for leverage. Our rate-limiting factor is no longer what we, personally, can do; it is what we, the collective, can do, and our job is to maximize that.

I’ve written before about the three jobs of any leader: making decisions; making the people around you better; and doing stuff.

Counterintuitively, the first two are the most important because they are much more scalable than “doing stuff.”

The question then arises: what does it look like when someone does this effectively?

The senior leader is faced with the following question in every moment of the day:

Of the million things that are going on right now (that I’m aware of) which of these needs my attention and my voice right now?

What does it take for this person to successfully answer this question day in and day out?

To makes sense of this, consider: her job is not just to make decisions; it is, more importantly, to quickly and effectively decide where to weigh in. To do this, both her decision-making and her meta-cognition need to operate at a very high level.

The only way she can survive and consistently add value in this maelstrom is if she:

  • Has easy access to the right information (from dashboards; from colleagues; etc.). She is IN the information flow and has open, trusting relationships with the right folks in the organization.
  • Processes all of this information quickly and acts decisively (“I can ignore all of these things, and these things need my attention right now.”)

Her job is to constantly be getting new information and successfully deciding: where to act; how loudly her voice should be heard; when to ensure that things are continuing or accelerating; and when to redirect or even stop.

There’s no way she will pull this off if she is not both fast and deciding now.

I often remind myself and my team that, to make lasting change, our work is a marathon, not a sprint.

However, the requirement of “fast and now” brings to mind the capabilities of a soccer player, not a marathoner.

As leaders, we need to be able to accelerate quickly for a short distance, over and over again. This skill allows us to achieve a high throughput on all the inputs we see, so that we can add value when and where it’s most needed.

Conversely, if it takes us a long time to process and decide—if we’re slow to get to maximum velocity and then to act—it will be harder for us to consistently add value in the way that we want and that our teams need.

There’s likely no shortcut to developing this ability, but we can keep an eye out for the things that slow us down. Things like:

  • Putting off the hard decisions until we have “enough time” or our to do list is clean.
  • Being unwilling to take a stand based on what our experience and pattern recognition tell us.
  • Feeling the need to weigh in on every important decision.
  • Not trusting our team to make tough calls.

Being unwilling to create clarity in the face of dissenting voices, for fear that someone won’t be happy with our decision.

It helps to remind ourselves that most of the decisions we make are Type 2 decisions—they are relatively easy to reverse—and that the enemy of progress is lack of clarity and the unwillingness to take a stand.

What’s Holding You Back?

A senior Partner at Bain, who I used to work with often, maintained that decision-making ability was the best way to assess the long-term potential and effectiveness of an organization.

According to their research, good decision-making boils down to: speed, effort, quality, and yield. The best organizations make decisions that tend to be the right ones (quality), quickly (speed), with relatively low effort, and that they nearly always turn into actions (yield).

The thinking behind this is: you might do everything else well, but if your organization is bad at making decisions, that’s going to hold you back in a fundamental way.

We can apply this thinking across multiple elements of our organizational DNA, and reflect on things like our:

Decision making

Internal communications

External communications

Who we listen to

How well we hire

How well we fire


Time management

Quality and number of meetings

Management skills



How much we are focused internally

How much we are focused externally

Strength and resilience of our external relationships

Risk management


Each of our organizations is all over the map for this list of attributes—good at some, great at a few, OK at a handful. But, most of the time, one of them is the most important, rate limiting factor for us. One of them is the cultural elephant in the room, the biggest thing weighing us down and sapping the momentum we garner from so much other good work that we do.

As you lay out plans for the coming year, remember: culture eats strategy for breakfast  (meaning: the best laid plans will fall flat if our culture doesn’t support them.)

What’s the one thing that, if you could change it, would change everything? And what are you going to do about that?

The Value of Just Deciding

I recently reserved a rental car for a four day trip in January.

The difference in price between full flexibility / cancel any time and paying fully upfront was more than $200. Put another way, I’d have to pay more than 50% more to keep full flexibility.

I can rationalize until the cows come home about why this flexibility might be valuable to me. Something might change! (The weather, my plans, the number of people I need to drive somewhere…)  But the reality is, I’ve already bought the flight and have sunk other costs into this trip, and it’s happening.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to pull the trigger.

The emotional labor of pushing through all of those “what if’s” and just deciding is big. Big enough that I could even put off deciding all the way until January.

In fact, by the time January rolls around, my future self might have forgotten about the $200 wasted. Worse, my today self has an irrational disregard for the well-being of my future self, and is more than happy to have future-Sasha spend 50% more in four months time.

The point, as always, isn’t about the car rental, the odds of bad winter weather, or the fine print.

The point is that for most things, deciding now, and deciding quickly, saves us time and money, and brings with it countless other benefits, cultural and otherwise.

We allow ourselves not to decide by telling ourselves that we’ll know more in the future, and that preserving optionality has real value.

Just as likely, though, is that this is a story we tell ourselves to justify our unwillingness to push through the resistance.

The costs of indecision are big, and they build upon themselves.

Decide today so that you free up your financial and emotional resources for more important things.

The Three Jobs of Any Leader

If you are a senior person in an organization, you have, at most, three jobs.

  1. Make decisions
  2. Make the people around you better
  3. Do stuff

Make Decisions

Seth argues that this is our most important job, and I agree with him.

In an information economy, decision-making happens constantly: the decision about what to do with the next hour of our time; about whether we’ll serve this customer or that one; about whether our product needs this new feature or that one.

The act choosing of whether we’re doing A or B, whether we’re going here or there, creates forward momentum.

And yet, most people, regardless of their role, avoid making decisions. Making decisions means being willing to take a position, to put ourselves on the line, to have a point of view. Terrifying indeed. Because of this fear, decision-makers are few and far between.

This means that no matter our organizational structure, anyone who regularly chooses to make decisions is a positive outlier with outsized influence on our direction of travel.

Making decisions quickly, and often with less information than we feel like we need, defines a culture that doesn’t have time to waste, because the work is both important and urgent.

And, like all things, the more often we – individually or collectively – make decisions, the better we’ll get at it.

Make the people around you better

Whether defining culture, cheering people on, removing roadblocks, coaching, or empowering others, the highest-leverage job we have is to find great people, bring them into our organization, and do everything we can to help them succeed.

The ability to attract the best people is a superpower. Talent attracts talent, and great attitude is the ultimate multiplier.

If we’re lucky enough to have great people, our main daily obsession, beyond making decisions, is to create an environment in which they can do their best work.

This starts with tons of communication: describing, over and over again, our ‘why;’ articulating where we are heading; making it as easy as possible for people to connect the dots between what they are doing and the big picture.

It requires individualized coaching and mentorship: skillfully deploying situational leadership so that our team has the right balance between supportive and directive oversight, so that their skills and autonomy develop over time.

And, ultimately, it is about standing side-by-side with people as they chart their path and, in so doing, move your whole organization forward.

Doing Things

This comes last on the list, and it may even fall off the list over time.

This might be counter-intuitive. How could “doing things” not be important, especially for your most senior people?

It’s true that most senior people became senior people because of their exceptional ability to do stuff: analyzing, building, visioning, strategizing, organizing, selling, and executing are the foundational skills that got us where we are today.

And yet, deploying these skills is often a low-leverage activity.

At worst, a leader who only ‘does stuff’ might be hiding from her two more important jobs of deciding things and making others better.

And, hiding aside, the act of “doing” too much runs the risk of creating dependency on this leader to do these important tasks.

Our success as leaders in organization, then, requires three things of us:

  1. Making decisions, as well and we can and as quickly as we can
  2. Helping others thrive, and diving into this work every day
  3. Leaving a small space for the jobs that we are uniquely suited to do….and then consistently, actively, giving those jobs to others over time.

Good Decision-Making

Ultimately, our job as leaders boils down to a few things. Having a vision and strategy that is shared, understood, motivating and that inspires action. Creating a great culture. Hiring and supporting great people. And, maybe less obvious, creating an organization that’s good at making decisions.

It turns out that there’s a very high correlation between organizational effectiveness and the quality of organizational decision-making. And the best, most actionable article I’ve found on understanding the quality of an organization’s decision-making says it’s function of:

  • Speed: how fast do you decide?
  • Effort: how much work goes in to making decisions?
  • Quality: how good are the decisions?
  • Yield: how well do you turn decisions into actions?

As someone who’s transitioned from the non-profit to the for-profit sector, my experience is that non-profit organizations typically decide more slowly and with more effort, all without resulting in consistently high(er) quality / higher yield decisions.

I think this is a function of the more multi-faceted accountability in the non-profit world (multiple criteria for success, multiple stakeholders). This in turn leads to slow(er), high(er)-effort decision-making which begets a culture that accepts slower, higher-effort decision-making, even when it’s not always needed.

This is not to say that faster is always better: speed is not useful if we make lots of quick, poor decisions.

Indeed, one of our jobs as leaders is to consistently walk the line of always moving quickly while managing to get the right input from the right people, so that decisions are (mostly) high quality.

The nuance is that how we decide develops into a cultural norm: people watch how decisions get made, learn that behavior by osmosis, and replicate whatever your decision-making culture is.

For example, is it OK in your organization to:

  • Make decisions without formal authority?
  • Change a decision after it’s been made? After the deadline?
  • Leave a decision-making meeting without a decision getting made?
  • Have a more junior person be the decision-making in a meeting with someone more senior?
  • Make a decision that is not documented?
  • Make a decision that doesn’t turn into action?
  • Be unclear who the decision-maker is on a given topic?
  • Have one decision-maker?
  • Have many decision-makers?

While there’s no right answer to any of these questions, my view is that organizational growth creates complexity, and complexity slows things down and allows people to hide.

That’s why most of the time, most organizations would benefit from faster decisions being made by fewer people who take more ownership around being “the decider.”

One helpful way to jumpstart these conversations is by starting to frame decisions as either Type 1 (irreversible, make them very deliberately) or Type 2 (reversible, prioritize speed). You’ll quickly discover that most decisions are Type 2, and that just might give you the freedom to move faster on them.

One final thought: one of the easiest ways to lead, no matter where you sit in an organization, is by choosing, today, to make more decisions without triple-checking if it’s OK. The worst thing that will happen is that you’ll discover that deciding really isn’t allowed (which is important information). The best thing is that more people will start turning to you to decide more things, because you had the courage to step up in the first place.

Crisis Speed

There was a moment, not long after we incorporated 60 Decibels, when I was sitting in the office with my head of operations. We had to decide which of a number of office spaces we had seen was right for us, and what lease to sign.  We discussed it for about five minutes, agreed what we wanted to do…and then we both just stopped for a beat.

Both of us paused because it felt like we needed to check with someone else, to get an additional approval, to run it up the flagpole.

But in a startup, blessedly, there is no flagpole.

Both of us got a bit giddy as we realized it was just up to us. When the surrounding silence made this abundantly clear, we confirmed our decision and moved on. That was the first of a thousand small decisions we made quickly.

She and I had both spent our careers in bigger organizations. We’d learned about things going slowly. It had been, slowly and surely, pounded in to us.

Of course things change in moments of crisis–like what we’re living through right now. When a crisis hits, we all move faster, because what’s happening externally is so big and so universally understood that no one will punish us for choosing to act.

The question that presents itself is: why only in a crisis?

One of the many things we are all learning is that we can up our game when we have to: we can make important decisions and own the consequences.

The people whose job it is to make sure everything is just right have other things to worry about right now. Or they’ve consciously changed their standard, tilting far in favor of action and away from methodically checking off all the boxes.

This has happened because we all understand the cost of inaction in a crisis.

What we shouldn’t forget, not just today but also in a calmer tomorrow, is that the cost of inaction is always high.

Many of us have learned that we can’t get blamed for doing nothing. But the much more important lesson is that inaction and passing the buck are nearly always the most expensive thing–not just because of the things we don’t get done, but because of the culture we build and the lessons we teach our best people:

That’s it’s not really up to them to decide.

That they’re not really on the hook.

That we don’t, when you boil it all down, trust them to act in our best interest.

What could be more damaging to the cultures we aim to build?