Make The Call

May 12, 2014 1 Min Read


How do we make good decisions? How can we learn from bad decisions?

As an international graduate (management trainee) for Standard Chartered Bank Malaysia, I have the opportunity to be part of a fast-paced and challenging programme aimed at making graduates role-ready faster than a lateral hire.

We go through various rotations in product, operations, credit risk and frontline roles where we interact with managers and leaders from numerous departments.

One key thing I have learned that separates good from great leaders is in the way they make decisions. As a keen learner in leadership, I would like to share seven leadership lessons in decision-making:

1. Decide daily to put first things first

One of my favourite habits in Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is to put first things first – professionally and personally.

I have learnt that leaders often focus on high-priority items before anything else. In their personal lives, a few have decided (with discipline) to prioritise good work habits.

Our office is located in the heart of Kuala Lumpur’s golden triangle and knowing the nightmare of our horrendous and infamous traffic jams, I know a leader who consistently reaches the office as the sun rises and is making decisions when most of us are just getting out of bed. By evening as the sun sets, she would have made plans to have her kickboxing training as she knows that a healthy body represents a fit mind.

Lesson: You have to decide to set your priorities with your work and yourself before deciding on anything else.

2. Decide to be positive

People can be categorised as positive and negative. Positive people see opportunity as a challenge but negative people see challenge in every opportunity. Negative people view what could be an opportunity as an insurmountable challenge and may not even try to overcome it.

Our bank went through a process of restructuring recently. This means people would report to different bosses and there would be changes in who reports to our bank’s leaders.

Leaders who saw this change as an opportunity despite some challenges in restructuring took the change in stride. Through it, they found greater synergy and support for each other, avoiding silo work and duplication of tasks from the previous structure.

Lesson: There is an opportunity in every challenge we face. Decide to be positive about it.

3. Decide to seek first to understand than to be understood

One of the leaders recommended that I read the bestseller The Art of Thinking Clearlyby Rolf Debelli, consisting of a series of 99 chapters of common thinking errors.

One of it is “chauffeur knowledge”, which is knowledge from people who have learned to put on a show. It was named after a Nobel Prize winner’s chauffeur who could recite the same lecture on quantum mechanics by the professor, because he knew it by heart.

Although some leaders get away with “chauffeur knowledge”, leaders who make good decisions make sure they understand a report before signing it and understand a point of view before expressing theirs.

Lesson: Understand the subject matter before you make any decisions.

4. Decide if you have to, by asking “What is the worst possible outcome?”

The management trainees had an engagement lunch with a country leader once and a question was asked; “How do you make decisions in a regulated environment where one decision could affect thousands of clients who bank with us?”

The leader mentioned that more than 100 decisions are made in a day, from financial decisions to firing or hiring decisions. When a quick but important decision has to be made, ask this; “What is the worst possible outcome from this decision?” If the benefit (best possible outcome) of making the decision outweighs the cost (worst possible outcome), go ahead with it. Better a decision made than none at all. Leaders are defined by the decisions they make.

Lesson: To quote a leader, “a decision made on Monday is better than a decision made on Friday”.

5. Decide not to fall in love with your decisions

Consulting firm McKinsey did a study on more than 1,000 business investments and found that returns on investment go up by seven percentage points when companies go through a checklist of 12 questions to reduce the effects of bias. One of it was, “Has the team fallen in love with their decision?”

I found that good leaders are open to feedback and constructive criticism. They may come up with the initial idea for a great investment product campaign but they are open and aware that if they fall in love with their decisions, they may unconsciously reject or ignore contradictory evidence or make inaccurate comparisons to suit their decisions.

Lesson: Be open to seek feedback even when you think you have made the best decision to do something.

6. Decide to have tough conversations

I have observed that leaders are not afraid to point out issues that have not been resolved or mistakes that need correction. It might not be nice to point out someone’s mistakes but a leader must be able to initiate tough conversations in order to get things done.

If someone doesn’t pull his weight, don’t be afraid to breathe down his neck. Leaders who do not put their foot down will have their hands tied as they are answerable to the mistakes of their followers. The best way to conclude a tough conversation is to end it by being specific in resolving the mistake and providing a deadline to fix it.

Lesson: If you made a mistake, don’t be afraid to admit it. If you spot a mistake, don’t be afraid to point it out.

7. Decide to make work-life choices, not seek work-life balance

The word “balance” denotes a 50-50 measurement but work and life are not ideally so. In my bank’s women’s initiative network lunch talk titled Women in the Workforce: Breaking the Barrier, one of the panel speakers shared that life is not about finding the right “balance” but making the right choices. A good thought-provoking idea mentioned was, “Have you made good work-life choices in your career, your family? Most importantly, yourself?

Sometimes your career choices may include you choosing the right spouse who is supportive. There may be days when you will put in long hours at work but the work-life choice you decided to commit to can put you ahead of the game.

Lesson: Know where you want to head in life. Make it your choice. The best leaders make things happen through effective decision-making. You cannot run away from making decisions as a leader of an organisation or in leading yourself.

As Jim Rohn aptly puts it, “It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you get off on sometimes. What matters most is getting off. You cannot make progress without making decisions.”

Jason Lee is part of Standard Chartered Bank’s international graduate programme in Kuala Lumpur. He believes that making good decisions makes good leaders, even when you lead a team of one, yourself. If you would like to engage with Lee, please contact with him at @jasonleecj on Twitter. Click here for more articles.

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This article is published by the editors of with the consent of the guest author. 

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