'Just Do It'? Not Always.

Dec. 21, 2004

Ernest Hemingway once said of writing that the words you leave out are every bit as important as the words you leave in. A friend told me recently that a twist on this phrase has turned out to be the best management advice he ever got or gave: The things you don't do are every bit as important as the things you do. Nearly all successful leaders and managers, this friend explains, have a bias toward action. Confronted with a choice between taking charge -- by launching a new project or by going ahead with a questionable hire -- or waiting for events to unfold, most executives, especially young executives, choose to act. Indeed, in Warfighting: The U.S. Marine Corps (1994, Doubleday), former U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. A.M. Gray writes, "Whoever can make and implement his decisions consistently faster gains a tremendous, often decisive advantage." Yet, according to my friend, the most important thing he has learned in 20-odd years of managing employees, projects, and clients is the importance of knowing when not to make and implement his decisions consistently faster. Although it can feel like letting go of control, he says, it really comes down to doing what it takes to listen to customers, to employees, or to that voice inside that says maybe this project isn't such a good idea after all. Although most executives find it hard to say no to their own and their boss' predilections for action, the things you don't do often have a bigger positive impact on your company's profitability than the things you do. Of course, knowing which problems to starve and which projects to feed isn't easy. To wit: It's the sales pitch you don't make, while you wait for the client to sell him- or herself. Or to tell you how. It's the reprimand you don't give to an employee, while you wait for the employee to explain his or her mistake and the solution. It's the project you don't start, because it would drain resources from core operations. It's the product you don't launch, even though your competitors have announced plans to do so, because you can't see how it builds long-term brand value. It's the partnership you don't pursue, because regardless of strategic sense the other organization doesn't share the same culture or values as yours. It's the questionable hire you don't make, because your gut tells you this person, no matter how qualified, won't fit with your team. It's the deal you don't do, because something just doesn't feel right. What are you not going to do this year? Send e-mail messages to John Brandt at [email protected]

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