The Seasoned Executive’s Decision – Making Style

New Research shows that senior managers analyze and act on problems far differently than their more junior colleagues do. Those whose thinking does not evolve may not advance.

The job of a manager is, above all, to make decisions. At any moment in any day, most executives are engaged in some aspect of decision making: exchanging information, reviewing data, coming up with ideas, evaluating alternatives, implementing directives, following up. But while managers at all levels must play the role of decision maker, the way a successful manager approaches the decision-making process changes as he or she moves up in the organization. At lower levels, the job is to get widgets out the door (or, in the case of services, to solve glitches on the spot). Action is at a premium.

At higher levels, the job involves making decisions about which widgets or services to offer and how to develop them. To climb the corporate ladder and be effective in new roles, managers need to learn new skills and behaviors – to change the way they use information and the way they create and evaluate options. In fact, we’ve seen in our executive coaching that making decisions like a full-fledged senior executive too soon can hurl an ambitious middle manager right off the fast track. It’s just as destructive to act like a first-line supervisor after being bumped up to senior management.

Our in-depth research into the reasons behind executive success and failure confirms just how consistently decision-making styles change over the course of successful executive’s careers. We scoured a database of more than 120,000 people to identify the decision-making qualities and behaviors associated with executive success and found that good managers’ decision styles evolve in a predictable pattern. Fortunately, struggling managers can often get back on track just by recognizing that they’ve failed to let go of old habits or that they’ve jumped too quickly into executive mode.

Defining Decision Styles

Before we look at the patterns, it’s helpful to define the decision styles. We have observed that decision styles differ in two fundamental ways: how information is used and how options are created. When it comes to information use, some people want to mull over reams of data before they make any decision. In the management literature, such people are called “maximizers.” Maximizers can’t rest until they are certain they’ve found the very best answer. The result is a well-informed decision, but it may come at a cost in terms of time and efficiency. Other managers just want the key facts – they’re apt to leap to hypotheses and then test them as they go. Here, the literature borrows a term from behavioral economist Herbert Simon: “Satisfiers” are ready to act as soon as they have enough information to satisfy their requirements.

As for creating options, “single focus” decision makers strongly believe in taking one course of action, while their “multifocused” counterparts generate lists of possible options and may pursue multiple courses. Single-focus people put their energy into making things come out as they believe they should, multifocus people into adapting to circumstances.