In Over Your Head with a New Leadership Position? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

My boss recently left the company. It was very sudden—I can’t tell if he left on his own or if he was fired. We had a good relationship, so I would have thought I would be more in the know. Anyway, my boss’s boss asked me to fill in until they find a replacement and gave me some high-level information on the other two business units I am now suddenly overseeing. I know very little about these other business units, as we have always been siloed. My old boss, it turns out, seems to have engineered it that way.

My new direct reports are literally jamming my inbox with questions about decisions that should have been made weeks ago and are expecting me to tell them what to do. My boss’s boss has gone AWOL. I have asked several trusted friends for advice, but they are fixated on getting me to ask for the title and salary that goes with the job, when what I really need right now is a way to make good decisions.

I have scoured our internal learning portal for some guidance and found some classes on decision making that I don’t have time to take. I have never been super confident in my decision-making ability, and now I am in a state of terror. What do you suggest?

Stunned and Terrified


Dear Stunned and Terrified,

This sounds awfully daunting. I honestly don’t know how you can be expected to make a bunch of decisions without at least some background. And yet, here you are.

I think there are two things to look at here: (1) a quick, short-term fix for your spot between a rock and a hard place, and (2) ideas for the long term.

Short Term: Lean on Your People

Set up meetings with your brand new direct reports to get a clear picture of decisions that need to be made right away. Meet with each of them one on one to get the lay of the land, and then meet with all of your leaders as a group to examine each decision and get input from everyone on the options available and recommendations for best approaches. It is always good to consult experts when making decisions—and these folks are as close as you can get to that right now. You will also want to ask them who else in the organization should be included or consulted in the decision. They will know.

Some of these decisions may not be as urgent as they initially appear, so make sure you focus on each one in priority order and defer those that don’t require attention right this minute. How on earth do you do that? Ask:

  • What is the problem we are trying to solve?
  • How do we know it is a real problem?
  • What terrible thing will happen if we don’t address it right now?
  • Do we have informed ideas about how to solve the problem?
  • Is it feasible to make a plan right now, or do we need more information, need to consult others, or wait to see what happens next?

It seems that there is some kind of intense situation going on at the top levels of the organization. Anything you can do to get things done and make life easier for your boss’s boss will be a good thing all around. Create a clear, concise communication for them about each decision, why it needs to be made right away, options for ways to go, and any pro/con thinking you have done either with the team or on your own. In essence, you are telling your boss’s boss what decisions you are going to make if you hear nothing back from them. That way, if something goes wrong later, you at least have written evidence that you made an earnest effort to get direction from above. I hate to think in terms of covering your butt, but in this case it seems like a really good idea. Put “URGENT: decisions that need to be made, with my recommendations” in the subject line.

While you are at it, in a separate communication, send a list of upcoming non-urgent decisions with any thoughts you have on those, too.

You have some story going on in your head that you aren’t confident in your decision-making ability. There are some methods to learn, for sure, and we will discuss those in a moment. For right now, remind yourself that you have a perfectly good brain that has brought you this far. People who are super confident in their decision-making ability either have unusual self-assurance, lots of experience making decisions, or both. You are about to get some experience, so you have that going for you!

Long Term: Develop Your Decision-Making Ability

Once you get through the immediate Class 5 rapids, you can give some attention to improving your decision-making ability. It isn’t some mysterious Spidey sense—there are proven models you can use to inform your thinking. Go ahead and take the classes offered through your company; you will absolutely find some good content there.

One of my favorite resources is The Owner’s Manual for the Brain by Pierce J. Howard. You don’t have to be a neuroscience wonk to love it. It really is quite an amazing overview. Chapter 26 is all about decision making, including how your personality affects your decision-making style and all kinds of models to define various types of problems and how to break them down to solve them. It is a bit expensive but, honestly, it will cover pretty much anything you would get if you bought 10 other books on this topic. Dr. Howard’s genius is in providing an excellent high-level overview of the topic and then drilling down into the most critical detail without getting lost in the weeds.

The other option, of course, is the internet. The resources are endless, but it is totally overwhelming. Hopefully, someone will put some good ideas for the ideal place to look in the comments below!

A couple of things I know for sure:

  1. The more you doubt your ability to make decisions, the harder it will be to make a good one. The key is to stay grounded, breathe, and trust that you are smart enough so that you can think straight. Swat away the transient negative thoughts and worries about the future to help you stay present.
  2. There is such a thing as decision fatigue. The pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain we need to see the big picture and analyze details) does get tired. So make your final decisions when you are rested, hydrated, and have steady blood sugar. Roy Baumeister, one of the foremost researchers on the topic, asserts that people who consistently make the best decisions aren’t necessarily smarter than the rest of us—they just know when not to make an important decision.
  3. Mistakes will get made. It is inevitable. And it will be OK as long as nobody dies. It doesn’t sound like you are being asked to review the engineering for a bridge or to do neurosurgery, so chances are any mistakes won’t be fatal. There will be consequences to every decision that gets made, and some will be unintended and unforeseeable. There just is nothing to be done about that. You will just have to learn to be OK with it.

Nothing like a little trial by fire to strengthen your mettle! But really, it is the only way to really grow and expand your capabilities. I wish it weren’t so, but there you have it. What I want is for you to be able to look back on this as a time when you rose to the occasion and made yourself proud.

Love, Madeleine

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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