Certainly the HBR method—start a timer running—has much to commend it, including the signal virtue of clarity.

Conceptually, I submit in situations such as this there are three choices:

  • Just decide. Whether you use the HBR method or (seriously!) flip a coin, just decide. The future is unknowable, so get over that implacable reality and admit you’re making a decision under conditions of uncertainty. That’s what leadership does. Much to recommend here.
  • Go back to the drawing board and reopen the competition. If you can’t reach consensus on A or on B, start the whole process over. I know after 18 months and exhaustive canvassing of candidates, human beings face exhaustion and I’m not blaming our committee in the least for choosing not to put themselves through this all over again (plus, what if they ended up in the same place again after not 18 but 36 months?). Conceptually pure but practically speaking tone-deaf and actually a non-starter.
  • Or re-structure the decision-making process from the get-go to enumerate the choices being made and the criteria which will go into selecting winners and losers. Unfortunately our committee would have had to do this 18 months earlier, but you aren’t so limited.

Let me elaborate on #3.

This requires the decision-making body, at the outset, to specify not just the question they have been entrusted to answer (“Who should be the next leader of the organization?”) but the acceptable criteria which can be employed in judging candidates. The key word here is “acceptable.” In other words, try to achieve consensus on permissible priorities and characteristics of [future leaders in this case, but whatever your choice concerns in your case]. Here they might be things like:

  • previous familiarity with the organization
  • “domain expertise” about the organization’s industry
  • decisiveness
  • charisma
  • emotional intelligence
  • financial acumen
  • intellectual heft
  • imagination and creativity
  • an optimistic, “can do” attitude
  • etc.

You get the idea; these are just examples.

But, hypothetically, had our committee agreed on such criteria at the outset, it would then have been impermissible for supporters of A or of B to introduce a new criteria in favor of their champion or against the other side’s, such as “has lived in New York,” “went to the right schools,” or “has a terrific spouse.” You get the idea.

If you doubt whether this can work, just try it. We were recently working with a firm to draw up a list of behaviors their (new) compensation system should be designed to encourage, and “pro bono” was dutifully suggested and resoundingly seconded.

But when it came time to allocate everyone’s limited number of votes among all the possible priorities listed, how many votes do you think pro bono got? Zero.

You see, priorities can actually be discovered, and acceptable answers narrowed down.

To paraphrase the hackneyed script the politicos and corporate flacks trot out every time there’s a mass shooting or similar tragedy, “our hearts go out to [C] and their family is in our thoughts and prayers.”


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