How Leaders Make Difficult Decisions
From clearly defining the problem and gathering comprehensive data to consulting with stakeholders and transparent communication—learn the crucial steps to make informed decisions and gain team trust.
As a leader, some things are just unavoidable. Being faced with hard choices is one of them. Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. What’s the best way to go about this? Is there a “toolkit” or a skill set to help leaders sort out their feelings and make the best possible decisions? As part of our series about “How Leaders Make Difficult Decisions,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Brian Vaughan.
Brian Vaughan is a highly skilled professional with over 24 years of experience in learning, leadership, and organizational development. As an expert, he has earned diverse certifications across various domains, focusing on creating tailored leadership programs for managers and senior leaders, equipping them with effective communication, conflict resolution, and enhanced team effectiveness.
Brian collaborates with managers and leaders to identify organizational development needs, developing training leadership strategies aligned with corporate objectives. As an internal consultant, he provides valuable insights on issues like employee retention, skill development, and performance improvement. His experience and certifications make him a trusted professional in the learning and leadership field.
Brian’s achievements include over 40,000 facilitation hours, designing successful leadership development programs for companies like Centene Corporation, Verizon Wireless, and Suddenlink Communications. He received the “Trainer of the Year — Shining Star Award” at Verizon Wireless and delivers keynote speeches at various leadership programs and training summits. As a consultant at the Verizon Wireless Leadership Roundtable, he contributed to organizational growth.
Currently, Brian is the Leadership Program Director for a high-potential development program he developed. This initiative identifies and nurtures future leaders through targeted learning experiences, mentoring, and challenging projects. By preparing high-potential individuals for leadership roles, Brian plays a pivotal role in the organization’s growth and success.
Brian is also the Founder and CEO of The Leadership Cheat Code, a groundbreaking podcast that aims to empower leaders to unlock the cheat code of effective leadership. This podcast combines engaging discussions, expert insights, practical techniques, and a wealth of resources, the podcast equips leaders with the mindset, skillset, and toolset necessary to excel in their roles.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
From an early age, leadership roles consistently found their way to me, whether by choice or circumstance. Surprisingly, my personal life did not present models of leadership; most of my initial impressions were shaped by media and sports figures. My true leadership potential came to the forefront during my time in the Army when I was entrusted with leading an entire platoon during basic training (talk about a difficult experience and challenge for an 18-year-old). This experience provided profound insights into the essence of effective leadership and the reasons behind why people follow great leaders.
My professional journey into leadership emerged later when I was promoted to a key role responsible for training and overseeing staff. Each subsequent position I held facilitated significant growth in the areas of learning and leadership development. My tenure at Verizon Wireless marked a turning point where I began to invest deeply in the field of leadership and organizational development. Subsequently, I achieved national and international certifications in learning, leadership, and organizational development domains.
Throughout my career, I have had the privilege of mentoring numerous leaders across a spectrum of organizations, focusing on areas such as leadership development, performance management, team efficacy, and enhanced decision-making abilities. My expertise also includes crafting leadership programs that equip managers and senior executives with skills in communication, conflict resolution, and problem-solving.
Now I embark on a new journey with The Leadership Cheat Code, a groundbreaking podcast that aims to empower leaders to unlock the cheat code of effective leadership. This podcast combines engaging discussions, expert insights, practical techniques, and a wealth of resources, the podcast equips leaders with the mindset, skillset, and toolset necessary to excel in their roles.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Mentorship plays a pivotal role in equipping leaders with the essential skills for efficacy. Among the various mentors I’ve had, one stands out significantly for her transformative impact on my professional journey. She consistently challenged my perspectives, scrutinized my ideas to ensure their robustness, and held me accountable when my performance was sub-optimal. This mentor was unwaveringly dedicated to molding me into an outstanding leader.
Her guidance was instrumental in refining my thought processes and elevating my cognitive abilities. Through her vast experience and insight, she illuminated the dedication, passion, and commitment intrinsic to exceptional leadership. Observing her in real-time, coaching, and nurturing leaders provided invaluable lessons. She demonstrated how to offer constructive feedback, direction, and profound insights, all of which have been instrumental in my leadership growth.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
When unforeseen circumstances necessitated the swift transition of our core curriculum from in-person to virtual training, transparent communication was critical. As the Training Manager of our Learning and Development team, I promptly called a meeting to outline the challenges and invite feedback from my team. Together, we identified primary challenges such as technology requirements and curriculum redesign for online engagement. Leveraging individual strengths, we delegated tasks based on team strength.
My tech-savvy members tackled platform selection, while curriculum designers adapted content for the digital learning platform. We conducted pilot sessions, implemented continuous feedback, and a culture of adaptability, we not only executed a successful shift to virtual training but also fortified our team’s resilience and unity. Our journey underscored the importance of clear communication, adaptability, and leveraging team strengths. Embracing these values, we transformed a significant challenge into an opportunity for growth, ensuring our readiness for future challenges.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through challenges? What sustains your drive?
Every leader, at some point in their journey, struggles with moments of doubt, often triggered by challenging work environments, difficult bosses, or the complexities of managing employee issues and concerns. I can attest that in my professional journey, there have been moments where I definitely considered stepping away from leadership roles forever. My perseverance in leadership comes from two primary sources. Firstly, my intrinsic motivation and values are centered around nurturing and developing individuals, empowering them to surpass their own expectations and achieve feats they never thought possible.
Secondly, external motivation plays a significant role. My mentor, whom I’ve spoken of earlier, often reminded me that leadership is a path loaded with challenges, telling me often that, “leadership isn’t easyship.” If it were easy, then everyone would do it. Additionally, the unwavering encouragement from my wife during tough times has been instrumental in sustaining my resilience as a leader.
Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader?
During my tenure as a Training Manager, I was faced with one of the most challenging decisions in my professional career: rebuilding my entire training team from scratch (talk about taking on a big challenge). The existing team, although seasoned and well-versed, had developed major behavioral issues, showed a decline in work ethic, and were consistently underperforming. Their understanding of the training content was top-notch since they were its developers and primary facilitators. Yet, the cons outweighed the pros, prompting a complete overhaul of the training department.
When I was faced with tackling the challenges of restructuring the team, several immediate concerns came to mind. First, there was the significant issue of knowledge loss. By parting ways with the old team, I risked losing a wealth of knowledge, especially given their deep understanding of department dynamics and our training content. Additionally, creating a seamless transition required me to develop a detailed timeline, addressing both the departure of the current team and the onboarding of new members. Maintaining operational continuity was another major concern. To avoid bringing our training operations to a standstill, a strategy had to be designed, which included retaining certain members from the old team for a certain period of time. Finally, clear communication with other departments and management was crucial for me, ensuring they were not only informed but also understood the reasons behind such a significant overhaul.
To navigate these challenges effectively, I had to adopt several crucial strategies. First, I introduced a staggered departure system for the existing team, ensuring a smooth transition rather than an abrupt departure. This process was facilitated by having the outgoing team draft a comprehensive document which detailed essential processed and procedures, invaluable insights, and best practices. Open communication was key as I maintained transparency about the reasons behind these changes and the anticipated advantages, instilling understanding in both departing and incoming members. Once the new team members were on board, they were put into an intensive onboarding phase that included training sessions with detailed content walkthroughs, team-building activities, and collaboration meetings with department leaders. Additionally, I scheduled bi-weekly check-ins with the new team members, to ascertain their progress and mental state, enabling timely identification and resolution of emerging challenges.
Through this complex restructuring, I learned the profound importance of communication, preparation, and adaptability. Though challenging, this overhaul marked a pivotal turning point for our training department, setting it on a trajectory for renewed success.
What process or toolset can a leader use to make a choice between two difficult paths?
It is vitally important for a leader to have a decision-making framework, as this helps to facilitate and enhance decision making, which results in consistent and effective outcomes. In my leadership role, I consistently leverage a range of decision-making tools to ensure clarity, consistency, and effectiveness in outcomes. A fundamental part of my decision-making arsenal is the DECIDE framework. This acronym stands for a systematic six-step process: (1) Define the problem, (2) Establish the criteria, (3) Consider all alternatives, (4) Identify the optimal alternative, (5) Develop and execute an action plan, and (6) Evaluate the results, revisiting the decision if necessary.
Furthermore, I employ decision trees as a strategic tool for informed decision-making. These graphical representations allow me to visually map out potential outcomes based on sequential choices or events. By laying out various scenarios, a decision tree helps to contrast each action’s potential costs, probabilities, and benefits. This not only aids in strategic planning by clearly explaining the viability of each option but also improves risk management, enabling me to anticipate and mitigate potential challenges. Such tools, combined with experience, equip me to navigate complex situations with foresight and precision.
Do you have a mentor or someone you can turn to for support and advice? How does this help? When can a mentor be helpful? When is this not helpful?
Mentors are valuable resources to have on your leadership journey. These key leaders play a vital role in developing others to be exceptional leaders. I have been mentored and have valued these profound relationships as the benefits provided have shaped and developed my leadership actions and behaviors.
Mentors are helpful when a leader seeks guidance and advice as mentors often have more experience and can offer insights that can help leaders avoid common pitfalls or navigate complex situations. It also facilitates great networking opportunities as a mentor can introduce leaders to influential individuals within an industry, helping to open doors that might otherwise remain closed. Another helpful aspect is skill development, as mentors provide feedback and constructive criticism, it helps to refine skills for professional growth. One crucial aspect for me was the emotional support it provided as leadership is a tough journey and having someone who understands and supports you can be invaluable.
However, mentorship does come with potential pitfalls. Such instances could be where a leader can become over-reliant on the mentor’s advice, stifling their growth and development. It is crucial for leaders to make decisions independently and learn from personal experiences. Another reason is when there are mismatched goals or values. The advice given might not always be relevant or beneficial. It is essential for those seeking mentorship to outline and communicate their values, goals, aspirations, and outcomes prior with the mentor to ensure alignment. And lastly, maintaining clear boundaries is crucial in preventing a mentor from become too invasive or controlling.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader when faced with a difficult decision?
In every leader’s career, they will face making tough decisions. Leaders must determine their approach and the best outcomes for the team or organization. Leaders should conduct a thorough analysis to acquire the data and information they need to make an informed decision. Leaders should consider the pros and cons of each option, decide on the best resolution, and then communicate to everyone why the choice was made. This is why having a decision framework is so important. Talking to their team, stakeholders and others involved can also give them different perspectives and viewpoints and help them see the larger picture.
Making difficult choices is hard and leaders must make these types of choices on a daily basis. Even when the choice is hard to make, leaders understand the consequences that can emerge when making tough decisions. They don’t pass the buck but instead stand by their actions and decision, taking accountability, and implementing improvement strategies to get better. Most importantly, they’re open with their team and stakeholders so that all involved are included and trusts the leader’s choices.
Do you ever look back at your decisions and wish you had done things differently? How can a leader remain positive and motivated despite past mistakes?
It’s a natural part of a leader’s growth and development to looked back at some of their decisions and to wish that things turned out different, especially if the outcomes were bad. Every leader face moments of doubt in their ability to make the right type of decision. I’ve learned over the years to understand that mistakes are just that, mistakes and should be learned from. Don’t dwell on past mistakes but consider areas for learning and improvement. Seek feedback from your team, peers and stakeholders, as this will open the doors to new perspectives and learning opportunities. A great way for a leader to build confidence in their decision-making capability is to celebrate the small wins along the way. This helps a leader to build up their skill and confidence when making decisions in the future.
One of the most important things that I have learned over the years and I do not see many leaders do, is practice self-compassion. As a leader, be kind to yourself! Remind yourself that everyone has their moments of imperfection and you are not defined by your mistakes. Surround yourself with positivity, whether that’s through trusted colleagues, uplifting content, or activities that reenergize your spirit. Learn to see mistakes not as failures but as valuable lessons pushing you towards greater achievements.
What is the best way to boost morale when the future seems uncertain? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team during uncertain times?
Boosting morale during uncertain times is one of the most crucial responsibilities of leaders. Team members look to their leaders for guidance, reassurance, and support, especially when they are unsure of what the future holds. Leaders should be proactive in creating a psychologically safe environment for team members to express their concerns, fears, and suggestions without judgment. Learn to communicate openly with your team. Don’t be afraid to share situations when you may or may not have all of the answers (I know leaders are supposed to have all the answers, right?). This transparency and humility will take you far as a leader, as it will help to foster trust and to reduce team anxiety.
One of the best ways to engage your team during challenging times is to conduct team building activities. These activities are designed to foster stronger team collaboration, instill a sense of camaraderie, and build trust and cohesion amongst the team. As a leader you could also promote wellness programs, flexible schedules and work hours, and conduct regular touch-points to ensure you are focused on the mental and physical well-being of your team.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses or leaders make when faced with a hard decision? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
When faced with hard decisions, leaders often have to deal with complex and high-pressure situations. One of the most common mistakes leaders make is rushing to make a decision without conducting a thorough analysis, which could lead toward potential problems down the road. Leaders should be conducting qualitative and quantitative analysis get the entire picture to ensure they have all of the relevant data to make an informed decision.
I’ve personally witnessed leaders who avoided seeking input from their teams and peers. This could be that they want to assert their authority as the leader and that they do not have to seek input in their decision-making process or out of fear of appearing indecisive, which can lead to the leader limiting their perspective and missing out on valuable insights. Another mistake is failing to communicate the reasoning behind a decision, resulting in confusion and mistrust within the team. Leaders are not always required to communicate the reasons behind the choices they make but it will do them good if they do as this will help you build trust, increase transparency, and foster a stronger relationship with the team.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a leader should do when making difficult decisions?
Clearly Define the Problem: The first step in making a difficult decision is understanding the problem in its entirety. This is taking time to craft a statement that outlines the problem that you are truly seeking to solve. A well-crafted problem statement acts as a roadmap for the decision-making process. A clear understanding of the problem ensures that a leader is tackling the real challenge and not just a symptom.
Gather Relevant Information and Data: Before making a decision, it’s imperative for a leader to collect all relevant information, data, and insights. This might involve speaking with their team and/or subject matter experts, researching and analyzing relevant data. Leaders need to gather both qualitative and quantitative data which aids in providing a comprehensive and solid foundation upon which to base their decisions.
Consult with Your Stakeholders: Whether they’re team members, colleagues, subject matter experts, or external partners, these parties can provide different perspectives and insights that a leader might not have considered. These discussions can uncover potential risks, benefits, and nuances of the situation.
Evaluate the Consequences: Every decision a leader makes has both short-term and long-term consequences. Leaders must take the necessary time to assess the potential risks and outcomes of their decisions, both positive and negative. This is the reason why it is critical for leaders to employ decision making frameworks that are effective as this will guide them to implement solutions that will get to the root of the problem.
Communicate Transparently: Once a leader has decided on a path to take, it’s vital to communicate it clearly and transparently to those impacted by the decision. Leaders should explain the rationale behind the decision (why was this the right decision and action to take), the expected outcomes, and how it aligns with the broader goals of the team and organization. Clear communication helps in reducing confusion, curbing anxiety, building trust, and gaining buy-in from team members and stakeholders.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I was going through the certification process with Franklin Covey in one of their leadership development programs, there was a famous quote by John Wooden that I heard, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are,” resonates deeply with me. It underscores the essence of integrity in leadership. To me, integrity isn’t just about doing the right thing when in the spotlight, but about being consistent in my values even when no one is watching. Reputation might give an immediate sense of respect or validation, but it’s the steadfastness of character that fosters genuine, enduring trust with my team, colleagues, and stakeholders.
Embracing this philosophy, I’ve come to realize that genuine leadership is rooted in authenticity (it is what is developed in the inner workings of self). By prioritizing character over reputation, I desire to lead with authenticity, forging deeper and more honest relationships with my team, peers, and leaders. When I’m faced with criticism, my commitment to character provides resilience, allowing me to stay grounded in my values rather than being swayed by shifting public opinions. Ultimately, while others may remember specific decisions or actions, it’s my legacy built on the foundation of character that leaves a lasting impact. In leadership, and in life, it’s not just about how we are, but the authentic substance from which we operate.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!