Building a context for better judgment

December 5, 2012

This book landed on our desks recently and looks promising.  In Judgment Calls, Thomas H. Davenport and Brook Manville share the tales of several organizations that made successful choices through collective judgment.

We’ll consider adding it to our collection in The Library in St.Pete, and based on the reviews and excerpts it sounds similar to another book already found our shelves:  Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for and Answer by Michael Roberto.  Professor Roberto writes that the key to making successful strategic business decisions lies in how you design the decision-making process itself, and how leaders address the inherent biases of that process.

Here Davenport and Manville (in a book excerpt at HBS Working Knowledge) recount how Tweezerman’s CEO Dal LaManga learned that the people around him were a big part of that process:

By his own words, LaMagna was “a risk addict and … a compulsive capitalist,” and deep down knew that he wanted to take his company to this next, bigger level. But he also wanted to avoid turning Tweezerman into one more failure in what had been a previous career of multiple entrepreneurial misfires. What if this last and greatest airplane, which had finally begun to fly—and fly high—now crashed and burned like so many other LaMagna ventures before? …For many of his earlier ventures, he had de facto operated as a solo entrepreneur, so any kind of collaborative decision making was not even an option.

In the early days of Tweezerman, things started out the same. But with the evolving success of the company, and the growth that followed, he began to see things differently. Over time, he had established a group of trusted executives around him, which formed a “steering committee.” And they all had their own points of view, which they regularly voiced. The tension of the big-growth decision was always before them. “For years, I was a like a horse champing at the bit to do this, and the steering committee held me in the corral so we could really think it through,” recalled LaMagna with a smile. “I know how reckless and impatient I can be, and these people kept me in check.” In the end, the CEO and the leadership team made the final decision together—in fact, a series of interrelated and difficult decisions leading to the all-important outcome. What follows is the story of how the collective judgment they called upon was built and embedded in the entrepreneurial soul of this company, enabling what ultimately became a multimillion-dollar enterprise—and wealth for all of them beyond their wildest dreams. Of particular note is the context for better judgment that LaMagna built around him: the cultural values and sense of mutual accountability within this company that he, as founder, encouraged and reinforced steadily.

…Like so many entrepreneurs, Dal LaMagna pursued his new idea with a vengeance, but insisted on doing it all himself. …  As he recalls, looking back, “I sort of had this epiphany. I suddenly realized what my own time was worth, and I wasn’t taking advantage of what I could do when I had to do everything alone. All along I had really just been sort of a promoter, selling this or that crazy idea. And it hit me then. I had to build a company. I needed to… get good at picking people I could trust and who could do the job.

Here’s how we put it last year in Good boards need tension and mutual esteem:

A frequent theme of our writing here, and our conversations with our entrepreneur partners, is board performance:  there is more to strong board performance than best practices.  The critical factor is a ‘robust social system’ in which members’ informal  modi operandi ensure that all the well-designed board processes function properly….

Simon C. Y. Wong,  a partner at London-based investment firm Governance for Owners and adjunct professor of law at Northwestern University School of Law, hits many of the same notes in this past June’s McKinsey Quarterly:

[B]oards that operate to their potential are characterized by constant tensions, coupled with mutual esteem between management and outside directors. Rather than leading to endless bickering, this virtuous combination helps to facilitate healthy and constructive debate and improves decision making.

And here he makes an excellent point about ownership that is especially true in the venture capital industry:

Directors with an ownership mind-set—whether from the family or outside—have passion for the company, look long term, and take personal (as distinguished from legal) responsibility for the firm. They will spend time to understand things they don’t know and not pass the buck to others. They will stand their ground when it is called for. Ultimately, the success of the company over the long term matters to them at a deep, personal level.

In the venture world our long term reward depends heavily on whether or not the value of our portfolio company appreciates.  Furthermore, there are far fewer investors (than in a publicly traded company) so owners are more “meaningfully engaged.”  Owners of private companies get to pick both their investors and their board members.  If entrepreneurs pick great partners (broadly defined) to fund their business and make sure both financial incentives and long term goals are aligned, they will have achieved “high performance” corporate governance that will contribute substantially to their eventual success.

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