How to make difficult decisions as a startup founder and CEO?

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit most sectors with a hurricane-strength force. Founders and CEOs have been forced to navigate their startups through choppy waters. As most plans were turned upside down due to country-wide lockdowns, people knew very little about what would happen in the next few days let alone weeks and months.

Curiously, as some of the changes brought about recently were an acceleration of trends that had been emerging over the last few years, some companies were able to react and turn the situation around.

The job of a founder and CEO is to make decisions based on a long-term vision of what could be and with a limited knowledge of what will be. No position in a startup is more important than that of CEO and, as a result, no job is more criticized. 

Often CEOs make decisions based on incomplete information, which require courage and the knowledge that with the unknown comes risks. Therefore, the CEO must have the courage to bet on a direction for the company, even if they do not not know if that direction is the right one. The most difficult (and often the most important) decisions are hard to make because they will set a course that might be unpopular with the CEO’s key stakeholders (employees, investors and customers).

We’ve gathered some suggestions, in times of crisis or not, that seem essential to run a startup: 

Remember why you’re in business

We’ve heard a lot of reasons why people get into business, but as a startup founder and CEO you will be constantly reminded why you are doing this. Business angel and serial french entrepreneur Grégoire Vigroux told us recently: “Never start a business just to make money. Start a business to make a difference”. Purpose-driven startup founders and CEOs are certainly more likely to be driven by their wider impact when making decisions.

In general, though, all CEOs are responsible for driving their startup to achieve the goals  and vision of their organisation. Your values and vision need to be aligned with that of your employees, investors and customers, as today people are constantly questioning the brands that they interact with. When making decisions, it is important for CEOs to keep in mind the ‘why?’: Why should someone join my company? Why should customers buy my product? Why should someone invest in my company?

Company values and culture are equally important (if not more important) than revenues and business growth. Think about why your brand stands out from competition, why your company’s culture will be beneficial to employees, what are your goals, and what your values are.  

Outline a clear plan

Does a CEO and startup founder need to do everything? In a team, each person has to have autonomy over their respective areas. Being a CEO is an area itself: executing on the overall strategy, fundraising, administrative work and presenting to a board or investors, are all inherent typical CEO tasks. 

At a macro level, making a plan and rolling it out accordingly is important. Whether it is financial metrics, product improvement, building a strong, talented team or legal issues, a CEO or founder needs to consider all these aspects individually and together to achieve the bigger picture. 

Having a well-designed business plan can allow you to make decisions faster and pivot your strategies when things get tough. The processes you put in place in your plan will also guide you in your decision-making processes. 

Thankfully, there are many technology-based tools that can complement your plan, too. For example, when making the decision to go remote during the pandemic, which could safeguard operations and keep teams active and safe, some useful tech-enhanced steps could include: 

  • setting up a remote workflow;
  • choosing a conferencing software; 
  • employing messaging applications for team cooperation; 
  • creating KPIs and deadlines; 
  • monitoring task completion in project management systems; and,
  • data security practices to ensure safe data storage and sharing.

Take leadership seriously

A founder and CEO must be able to lead. Leadership should be inclusive, ongoing, strategic, systemic, productive, positive, as well as influential and goal-oriented. 

If you want to approach decision making as a leader, you need to be able to assess many aspects at once, including timing, deadlines, and direction, among others. Times of stress, pressure or tight deadlines usually benefit from leaders who are prepared to make a quick, firm and unilateral decisions. In these circumstances, team members may actually prefer to be told what to do, as this allows them to respond quickly and successfully to the need that arises. Whereas, if the situation allows for time and planning, it can benefit from a more democratic approach – one that incorporates participation and dialogue.

Whenever you can empower team members to own or participate in a decision making process, it will create higher levels of engagement and solve some of the problems you’re facing. 

Limit your options 

One of the mistakes commonly made in decision making is to give ourselves a lot of options. We believe that if we look at all the options, we will have better choices and make the best decision. Sometimes we do this exhaustive research as a way to resolve uncertainty. We assume that if we review everything, we won’t miss anything at all and there won’t be uncertainty. The problem is that we risk being overwhelmed and not making any decisions.

As CEO, you might need to make a decision fast. To help yourself and others effectively and efficiently make decisions, limit your options. Keep options fewer than five and you will find it much easier to make a decision.

Create an open space for exchange and discussion 

Some leaders may feel that seeking input from others is a sign of weakness or indecision. This is not necessarily the case. In fact, allowing time and space for feedback from team members will actually strengthen a leader’s influence and increase the trust and buy-in present within the team. 

Creating an open exchange ultimately leads to better decisions, as more contributions can be taken into account. The word ‘open’ is important, as team members need to feel comfortable expressing different points of view without judgment. But, as a leader, it’s good to know when to make the final call no matter the level of uncertainty. 

“Great decision making takes practice. As you now know, this process requires a certain level of comfort with discomfort. We could play it safe and defer important decisions to others, spend hours and hours analyzing and agonizing over every option, or we could accept the level of risk and go for it.” Larina Kase, professional speaker, author and leadership expert.