C-Suite Execs Share What to Do When Tough Calls Knock

business leaders

The tough choices a business makes should reflect its hopes, not its fears.

But getting to the right answer when faced with a challenging decision is becoming more complex, especially as the realities of the business landscape continue to shift while operational workflows and entrenched processes are buffeted and transformed by the rapid pace of innovation and disruption.

Still, one thing remains certain: there is never a good time for a tough decision — and the longer an organization takes to act, the worse the situation it is facing can become.

That’s why, as part of the new executive series “Tough Calls,” PYMNTS sat down with three leaders from three great companies to learn about the toughest decision they’ve faced in their careers and how they handled it.

Tough Calls Require Action

When it comes to tough calls, C-suite leaders need to be ready to make them.

Hesitation kills, and if organizational heads dilly-dally when trouble strikes, they will in some senses have already doomed themselves and their business to failure by their inaction. After all, disasters themselves rarely stand still.

“One of the core values I stand for as a CFO is a sense of urgency … When these tough decisions come along, by our [organization’s] very nature, we have a stance of ‘let’s act,’” Matt Janopaul, CFO at Fender, explained to PYMNTS.

Executives often find themselves at crossroads, tasked with making tough business decisions that can shape the future of their companies. These pivotal moments demand a thoughtful approach, a blend of analytical acumen, emotional intelligence, and strategic vision — but most importantly, they require action.

“It first starts with being calm and mindful of the situation. Very rarely are tough calls truly catastrophic to a business — and often, the rest of the organization will look to the CFO or other senior finance leaders for calmness and clarity, as well as data,” Janopaul said.

“If you start with that as the foundation, and then overlay the idea that nothing is sacred, that when making these tough calls, we might have to do things that are unpopular or that have never been done before … often what happens is that out of these tough calls, and borne of patience, comes a new opportunity,” he added.

Making a Decision Right Now Is What Matters Most

Executives don’t rise to the top of an organization by just sitting there and twiddling their thumbs. They are constantly making decisions and iterating off of those decisions to drive their businesses forward and hit their strategic goals and key milestones.

“Tough decisions are tough for a reason. Don’t expect a very difficult problem to be solved easily,” Ulf Persson, CEO at intelligent automation company ABBYY, told PYMNTS. “If you are put in a position of leadership, then you’re there for a reason. You’ve probably shown yourself able to make tough calls, and you’ve gained experience. So it is important to really to trust yourself and trust your process.”

“At the end of the day, someone has to make the call. And at the end of the day, someone has to stand by it. If you are an executive and leader, you’re paid to make hard decisions,” Persson added.

“The origin of decide, the Latin etymology, means ‘to cut off,’” Placer.ai Chief Financial Officer Dean Neese explained to PYMNTS separately. “It means to take opportunity away. You’re going down one path. That’s why it’s scary.”

But by taking a long-term view of what’s right for the business, organizations can frequently surprise themselves with how effectively they are able to navigate a tumultuous business decision.

Course Correcting Can Lead to the Right Course

The best executives know that when faced with a tough call, it is acting now that matters — and that failure is more acceptable than inaction, because by admitting mistakes and learning from them, organizations can pivot and adapt, and often succeed.

“You have to be willing to make decisions and then course correct quickly after those decisions, particularly if you’re in a tough situation or in a crisis,” Fender’s Janopaul said.

“There needs to be the right to fail, make mistakes, and course correct,” ABBYY’s Persson emphasized. “Don’t let pride stand in the way of taking corrective measures. Accept it and improve.”

Placer.ai’s Dean Neese agreed, explaining that, “it’s the pace of decisions that really distinguishes top performers from the bottom. If you make more decisions, you get better at it, but you also learn to fast fail, meaning, ‘OK, we tried something out. It didn’t work, and we killed it.’”

That’s why it remains crucial for business leaders to embrace a quick-thinking decisiveness, grounded in personal accountability, when faced with a strategic fork in the road.

All three executives PYMNTS spoke with emphasized that “perceptual acuity” was the most valuable skill for executives to lean on when faced with a tough call.

“Being able to learn from patterns and trends can be powerful, particularly with tough calls, because a lot of this is having a process that you can take off the shelf and put in place to address whatever may be going on when there’s a crisis or a tough call,” Fender’s Janopaul explained.

“Perceptual acuity is one of those attributes that’s hard to replicate and probably the most important when it comes to making a challenging decision, because it draws on pattern recognition which takes years to garner from lessons learned,” added Neese separately.

The executives also emphasized that no one should ever act alone — while leaders often end up being the one making the ultimate choice, that choice needs to be communicated and socialized effectively for it to have a winning impact.

While humility and a commitment to continuous improvement are key ingredients in the recipe for business success, so too is listening to others and effectively communicating decisions.

And after all, as Persson said, making those tough calls confidently “becomes a barrier to entry” when peers or competitors find themselves faced with the same quandary.