I hold an MBA from London Business School and there’s no doubt it’s a valuable degree to have under one’s belt. I guess to some extent I have to say that; how else would I justify the exorbitant tuition fees?
Still, I learned a lot during that year. Much of it applicable in the real world, which isn’t always the case when it comes to tertiary education.
That being said, there’s one skill they don’t teach you in business school. It’s something I believe to be more important than smart business acumen, exceptional marketing know-how, or even financial savviness.
Make no mistake—these abilities are of critical importance. Without them in your arsenal, your company will flounder, and possibly even fail. They’re just not, in my opinion, the most important skills you need to run a business successfully.
The one skill every business owner must have
So, what skill is most important? Quite simply, the ability to make difficult decisions.
When you run your own business, you’re going to be faced with a lot of tough calls. It comes with the territory. However, the ones I want to talk about today are the ones that have a direct effect on the people you work with.
A difficult decision is one that is unpleasant in the short term, but good for the company in the long term. It usually involves having a tough conversation or taking an action that will make you unpopular with your staff, colleagues, or clients.
Smart decisions aren’t always popular decisions
Let’s say a key player at your company resigns. They’re well liked by other staff members, clients love their can-do attitude, and they have a knack for converting leads into paying customers.
The knee-jerk reaction is to do whatever it takes to hold onto them. Aside from their many positive attributes, there’s another more pressing reason for trying to keep them from leaving.
You want to avoid the pain of the HR transition that invariably follows whenever there’s a staff change. Even if you’re prepared with all the relevant processes in place, it often takes two to three months for things to return to normal.
However, there are a few reasons why I’d much rather go with the more difficult choice of wishing the outgoing team member well on their way.
Firstly, offering someone a raise or promotion once they’ve resigned will have them wondering why you didn’t make the offer before (and rightly so). Secondly, if they’ve resigned, then it’s probably safe to assume their mind is made up. Perhaps they’ve found a new and exciting opportunity or maybe they just feel their tenure at your firm has run its course.
Look for the silver lining
Rather than find a way to convince them to stay, the better—but far harder—choice is to look for the positives in an otherwise not so great situation and find a way to move forward without your key player.
Because they’re so well-liked, the fact that you’re not doing whatever it takes to keep them will very likely not be well-received. Here’s where you have to find a way to win everyone over to your way of thinking.
What are the positives of this situation?
Take stock of your current staff and see who might be ready for a promotion or more responsibility. In other words, who is ready to step up and fill their predecessor’s shoes?
This route avoids you having to find a replacement in a hurry, which will keep HR happy and more importantly ensure you don’t make a bad hire because you’re under pressure.
Not filling the position from the outside means you’ll free up money to be used more creatively in other areas of the business, such as marketing or training. Just make sure you don’t do this at the expense of your current staff members’ well-being. If the workload requires it, then by all means, hire someone new.
Finding ways to sell your difficult decision in a positive light will go a long way to smoothing ruffled feathers, but don’t let the possibility of upsetting the status quo deter you from making the right choice for your business.
Keep the bigger picture in mind
I’ve been running TopLine for eight years now and I still balk when it comes to making difficult decisions. But I also I know how important they are, and somehow that lessens the sting of always having to be the bad guy.
Avoiding the tough calls altogether is much more appealing, especially when the alternative seems like an even worse option.
Let’s say, for example, that you have a client who thinks it’s acceptable to walk all over you and your team. It’s often easier to justify their behavior than risk losing the revenue.
However, the long-term impact is that your staff will be unhappy and overworked (toxic clients are unfailingly more demanding). This, in turn, will indirectly affect your ability to win new business. It’s a tough call to fire the client—but in this instance, it’s also the right one.
Don’t be afraid to take things slowly
In my experience, the best approach when faced with a difficult decision is to wait and not rush into anything. If you have the time, I highly recommend sleeping on it. But if not, then at least make sure you take a breath (or five) and consider carefully the pros and cons of the situation you’re faced with.
What you’ll find (and this certainly holds true for me) is your initial reaction to a situation won’t necessarily inform how you ultimately respond to it. Allow the problem to marinate on the back burner for awhile, and more often than not you’ll arrive at a much better solution.
Sure, the solution may well require that you make a tough decision or have a difficult conversation with a client or an employee, but if it’s in the best interest of the company in the long-term, then it needs to be done. Difficult decisions are hard. That’s why they’re called difficult decisions.
Just remember: You might have to be the bad guy, but you can always be nice about it.