Us and them Featured

11:41am EDT November 22, 2004
Every day, we make decisions -- some because we want to, others because we have no alternative. With every choice there are pluses and minuses, and some of the thornier decisions will ruffle a few feathers. The higher you go in an organization, the more far-reaching the decision's implications, and the greater the degree of feather ruffling.

So how do we make decisions that will stick and most likely work? How do we make them quickly, yet with thorough deliberation?

Soon after starting my company, the reality hit me. As business continued to grow and I made hard decisions, some people liked them and others didn't. Many times, I'd be second-guessed. But if you look at failed companies, you'll find that much of the failure lies at the feet of the management team, specifically the CEO who didn't pull the trigger on critical strategic and financial decisions.

I also learned that procrastinating or taking half measures to solve problems made things worse. The winners in business are those who can move from mind to market faster than the competition. That means making decisions and taking calculated risks.

My method for making difficult choices was to follow the time-tested formula of ready, aim, fire. This meant taking emotion out of the equation, gathering the facts, deciding where I wanted to go and determining how I planned to get there.

It also meant not trying to please everybody, because that just doesn't happen. Certainly, you take into account the effect of the decision on all of your constituents, starting with your customers, because without them, you won't have a business. I also sought thoughtful input from my associates, employees, investors and advisers, but not necessarily in that order.

Finally, and most significantly, I learned not to make decisions based on how it affects "us" or "them." Instead, I made the decision "for the love of the company" and the good of the entity. I learned that by putting the organization first, instead of special interest groups, you'll win many more times than you'll lose.

There are downsides to this Machiavellian, unemotional, fact-based, decision-making process. Expect to be by yourself. Some will choose not to spend unnecessary time with you because they'll feel you made a choice adverse to them.

On the upside, you'll spend less time going out for lunch. You can fulfill your mid-day sustenance requirements in five minutes at your desk, giving yourself 55 extra minutes a day to think about your business and its future.

And since people won't want to be with you as much, there's no need to own a big SUV or an ugly sedan. Instead, you can justify buying a svelte, two-seat sports car, knowing that the second seat will be occupied by a trusted companion, your briefcase.

Decisions are not supposed to be easy. Business is not a popularity contest. To make your move, listen and learn. Your wife, husband or significant other is good source, as is your barber, who you tend to listen to, particularly since he or she is wielding a sharp razor.

Next, study the consequences of your decision from a short, intermediate and long-term perspective. Finally, you've got to lead, follow or get out of the way -- make your decision, then build consensus with anyone and everyone who will listen to you. Speak with passion and conviction, and always have your facts and figures at your fingertips.

Sure, some in the "us" camp will dis you, and the "thems" will talk behind your back. Others will refuse to utter your name and refer to you as a pronoun. But rest easy. You made your decision for a greater good -- the love of the company. All things being equal, you will not only survive, but succeed. Finally, remember, sometimes it's lonely at the top, but the view is truly spectacular.

MICHAEL FEUER is co-founder of the mega office products retail chain OfficeMax, which he started in 1988 with one store and $20,000 of his own money along with a then partner and group of private investors. During 16 years as CEO he grew the company to almost 1,000 stores with sales approximating $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion. In January, Feuer launched Max-Ventures, a venture capital operating. Reach him at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

Editor's note: Michael Feuer will discuss "Tips from the top" at 11:30 a.m. Dec. 6 at The Forum Conference Center as part of the 2004-2005 Smart Business Live Luncheon Series, sponsored by Skoda Minotti & Co., The Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority, Brightnet and The Forum Conference Center. For information on how to attend, call (440) 250-7021.