When it’s time to kill the sled dogs

StateLibQld 1 242813 Frank Hurley's photograph of the Endurance being crushed by the ice in Antarctica, 1915

One of my favorite books is “Endurance,” Sir Ernest Shackleton’s story of his attempt in 1914 to cross Antartica via the South Pole. After his ship became stuck in ice, Shackleton led his crew on a two year journey to safety. Along the way, he showed incredible leadership. One example is when he made the difficult decision to kill the sled dogs, who were a drain on their precious supplies.  Shackleton, knowing that his men were fond of the animals, talked about how much the dogs consumed for a few weeks before announcing his decision. By socializing the idea that they may need to kill the dogs, he gave everyone time to come to grips with it.

As leaders, we are faced with difficult decisions all the time. I remember a particularly challenging hiring process for a manager in my department. I was looking for someone with a specific technical expertise who could also chart an inspiring, strategic direction. After reviewing many resumes, I found an ideal candidate and brought him in to be interviewed by the team. Afterwards, I led a debriefing session to gather everyone’s feedback. To my surprise, they gave a collective thumbs-down. I couldn’t believe it! He was more than qualified and an all-around nice guy, but still the team didn’t think he was the right person to hire. Over the next couple of days, I muddled over this feedback, consulted with some of my trusted members of the team, and ultimately decided to hire him. My gut told me he was the one. When I announced my decision to the team, I made sure I did three things:

  • I acknowledged that I heard their feedback,
  • I told them I was going against their recommendations and explained why, and
  • I asked them to keep an open mind as the candidate joined us.

Even though my decision was unpopular, I heard later that the team appreciated how direct I was. They were open-minded as they welcomed their new manager, and he became both successful and well-respected. I would make that tough decision again in a heart beat.

The decisions we face as parents can be just as difficult and seem to be never ending. What pediatrician will we choose for our baby? Do we spend the extra money for organic food? Do we trust this caregiver? What school option is right for our child? Should we get a dog? Does our preteen need a cell phone? Is our 16-year old responsible enough to get her driver’s license? The list is endless.

Even with years of experience as both a leader and a parent, I still find it hard to make tough decisions because:

  • I may not have all the information to make the decision. So, I have to trust my instinct.
  • I may make the wrong decision. I don’t have a crystal ball that shows me the impact of my decisions. If and when I make a mistake, I own it. I take responsibility for the decision and how to handle the fallout.
  • I may be less liked. Tough decisions are rarely popular.

Given that making difficult decisions is a fact of life, I have found these best practices helpful:

  1. reflect my personal values. I do my best to be genuine and transparent, and to share my thoughts about the decision in a way that is respectful to those that will be impacted. I try to empathize with anyone who will be impacted by a decision.
  2. I often socialize a decision before it is final to gather more input and to give others time to deal with it. I explain why I need to make the decision, and how I am going to make the decision. I listen to what others have to say about it, and decide if I should reflect their input in my decision. I make note of concerns that I want to address when I explain what decision I have made.
  3. don’t procrastinate. Tough decisions rarely get easier to make over time. If there is no obvious deadline, I choose one and stick to it. I strive to give myself enough time to evaluate options and the impact on my business or family, but not to the extreme that I can’t make a timely decision.
  4. I am definitive. When I share the final decision, I don’t second guess myself. I make sure others know the decision is final. At home, where my husband and I share the decision making process, I use words like, “Dad and I have decided…”  At work, I say direct things like, “This decision is final.”

While I hope you and I never have to actually kill any sled dogs, we will continually face tough decisions at work and at home. What best practices do you follow? I’d love to hear them and learn from you.

–Karen

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© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

3 thoughts on “When it’s time to kill the sled dogs

  1. Hi Karen, I’m loving the blog. Thank you for sharing your insights and experience. I have already passed it onto a few people.
    Just for accuracy, I think it was Sir Ernest Shackleton who attempted to cross Antarctica in 1914 . (He was knighted later)

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