How senior executives make decisions?

I recently was in the loop of an email thread that went something like this. A junior level candidate was referred to a senior executive as a possible hire for their team. The senior executive inquired with their management team as to candidate fit and positive feedback was provided so introductions were done. The recruiting team was asked to reach out to the candidate. A week later, the candidate had not been contacted so the person who referred the candidate followed up with the executive. The executive was not aware that the candidate had not been contacted, reminded their team to reach out and was assured it would happen. Two weeks later, the executive had not heard anything, so they reached out to the recruiter for an update. Response was immediate that the candidate had been contacted the week prior and was “in-process”.

So what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that this is an all-too-frequent example of a self-inflicted career wound. Early in my career, I was a guest instructor at an IBM new hire bootcamp. IBM had a practice of inviting senior individual contributors to be guest instructors at bootcamps to supplement the core training staff. During these bootcamps, new hires would also hear from “guest executives” who would speak on various topics. The wisdom shared by one of those speakers still lingers with me 30+ years later.

This executive led a sales team of a few hundred people which at any time would include a couple of dozen new hires. The executive would have only a handful of interactions with each new hire during their first year with IBM, yet was forming an opinion about each employee that could affect their career or even whether they remain at IBM. He acknowledged that this may be harsh and that many of his impressions formed may be inaccurate because they were based on a very small sample set of interactions. Regardless, they were his impressions and decisions made would be coloured by those impressions. His message that day to those new hires was simply “You will have a small, limited number of chances to make a positive impression, don’t blow any of those chances. Treat them as golden career opportunities”. That message is as valid today as it was then.

Over the past 30 years, I have watched how executives make decisions as well as reflecting on my own decision-making process as an executive and advisor to C-suite leadership. The impact of “gut feel” in decision-making cannot be under-estimated. Even when a decision is made that goes against “executive gut feel”, the amount of additional energy required by others to overcome the “gut feel” bias is significant.

So back to the email thread at the top of this story. What impression did the recruiter leave with the Executive: “Dependable, Reliable and Trustworthy” or “Not organized, Not able to do their job, Not engaged”? What are the ramifications? Maybe nothing but maybe a “gut feel” reaction at some decision point in the future that negatively impacts that person’s career.

This is one of the reasons why I am so anal about managing emails and clearing my inbox, being responsive to requests, proactively providing status updates and adding postdate reminders to follow-up on emails or other activities so things don’t get forgotten or fail through the cracks.

That is also why that executive’s advice from the 1980’s still resonates today. “You will have a small, limited number of chances to make a positive impression, don’t blow any of those chances. Treat then as golden career opportunities”.

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