Chiefly, you learn how to make decisions by doing.
But you can also learn, says Michael Useem, director of Wharton’s Center for and Change , by approaching people who are good at it, watching how they do it and asking them to reconstruct the process.
1. The chief executive of Lenovo came out of a government-funded Chinese research center to help form the private PC maker. Useem asked him how he learned to make decisions on branding, pricing, marketing and hiring when he’d done none of those things before.
The answer: Every Friday afternoon for 22 years, the executive sat down with his direct reports and reviewed everything they’d done that week: which decisions were good, which were bad. He has no business degree or formal training, yet, within two decades, this simple practice transformed his company into the third-largest PC maker in the world.
2. Tom Boatner signed on as a U.S. Forest Service firefighter at age 21. In Alaska with flames rushing up hills, Boatner jumped out of a truck, raring to go. But his boss, Robert Burritt, told the crew to hold on.
“And Burritt just stood there,” Boatner recalls. “He just literally stood there, as if there was plenty of time, nothing going on: the look of total cool.
“And then, he very methodically began to ask people on the fire team: ‘What’s going on? What do you see? Where’s the fire going? What’s the wind doing? What’s the texture of the ground material?’”
After 10 to 15 minutes of gathering data, Burritt came up with a plan. He divided the group into teams and told them to report back in 25 minutes so they could reappraise.
The novice Boatner was stunned by the slowness of the process. Today, he’s an incident commander with hundreds or thousands of firefighters reporting to him.
“Whenever I get into a fire zone and I know resources are limited, lives are at risk, I think ‘Robert Burritt,’” he says. “It cools me; it gets me to focus.”
—Adapted from “Michael Useem’s The Go Point: Knowing When It’s Time to Decide,” Knowledge@ Wharton.