CEO’s operate in a climate of constant interruptions and short attention spans.
Remember multitasking? It was all about being able to do more at the same time. Except that it didn’t really work. Apparently, we didn’t learn our lesson. A recent Wall Street Journal article on behavioral economics sheds light on the ongoing multitasking problem.
In plain English, behavioral economics studies the effects of various factors, such as emotional, cultural and social, on the economic decisions of individuals. The field is well represented with recent Nobel Prizes in Economic Sciences. Recent research tells us that because of our addiction to smartphones and other gadgets, we are still multitasking, as we flit from one piece of information to the next, without really digesting what we are reading. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, this creates a shortage of attention, which can lead to poor financial decisions. While the WSJ article was written in relation to investment decisions, a CEO’s overall decision making abilities are negatively impacted when he/she is confronted with more information than can be digested in the time available.
Suggestions on How to Improve CEO Decision Making
Generally speaking, small companies have fewer resources than larger ones. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the sparse ranks of the upper management of many small companies, where key decision making is often left to the CEO. If you are a CEO struggling to find time to make important business decisions, here are some battle-tested suggestions for you to consider.
Stop Making Inconsequential Decisions
If you, as a CEO, insist on making every decision, this is already a poor decision. Not only are you needlessly choking your calendar, but perhaps more importantly, you are foregoing the opportunity to identify and “grow” future decision makers in your company. Day-to-day company decision making isn’t rocket science. Pick appropriate topics and allow your (capable) employees to make small decisions and demonstrate their abilities. If you work with them and increase their responsibilities over time, they’ll gain confidence and improve, and you will increase your available time for more consequential matters.
Restate the Problem without the Clutter
Three words: return to sender! Before reading very long emails, first scan them to see if the purpose of the email is relatively clear. If it’s not, return it to the sender with a request that they simplify the email by removing unnecessary words. In essence, ask them to re-send the email without the clutter. Not only does this save reading time (and frustration) for the CEO, but it often doesn’t take long for other employees to begin to “remove the clutter” in their emails, further saving additional CEO reading. You can do the same thing with employees who tend to be long-winded on the phone.
Ask for Solutions Along with Problems
When receiving an email or phone call containing a problem, a CEO should consider asking the sender for at least one suggested way to solve the problem. (Again, without the clutter.) Unless the sender is merely a messenger, it often makes sense to have the person familiar with the problem think through one or more suggested solutions while it is still current in their minds. Not only does this save time for the CEO, but it can be another great way to “grow” internal decision makers. And, like the clutter removal request, it can also percolate throughout a company, saving overall time and promoting a “solution” versus a “problem” culture.
Form an Informal Advisory Board
Since small companies have limited resources, consider changing the resource dynamic whenever you can. One way to increase available people and time is by starting an informal advisory board (IAB). IAB’s are made up of experienced business people who assist CEOs in running their companies. IAB’s are not company employees and they perform no managerial duties.
IAB’s are typically business people with experience in different industries and positions, so, for example, they are not all construction or HR people. They bring “fresh eyes” that can be invaluable to companies stuck in “ruts.” Additionally, as impartial business people, they can be honest about important issues such as company performance and evaluating new market opportunities. Further, their connections and referral sources built up over the years can help identify new solutions to existing company problems.
With their diverse backgrounds and business experience, IAB’s help improve CEO decision making by increasing the resources – people and time – focused on particular business issues. In this way, they help relieve “CEO overload,” by bringing additional people to bear who can help the company cover more topics, and in more depth. IAB’s also combat shorter attention spans and “seat of the pants” thinking by adding additional time for thought and consideration before key decisions are made. One important, but not so obvious benefit, is that IAB’s bring together people who are used to making business decisions. As such, they can anticipate information a CEO will need to reach a decision, especially when it involves a problem that they have already addressed.
James F. Hart, MBA, CPA, CIRA, founder of Lightfoot Group, LLC, assists business owners and their key advisers with advisory board and business troubleshooting services involving critical business challenges, dispute resolution, and management and ownership transitions. Jim has decades of experience as a business adviser, court-appointed receiver, turnaround consultant, and interim manager including operating and selling companies and assets, resolving disputes, and assisting family-owned businesses.
© 2018 James F. Hart, Lightfoot Group, LLC
 Benartzi, Shlomo. “The High Financial Price of Our Short Attention Spans.” The Wall Street Journal 21 Oct. 2018.