Some time ago I was interviewing Tony Cohen, CEO of Fremantle Media; they own television production companies all over the world. A programme developed in one country (say, “Pop Idols” or “The Price is Right”) may also have potential in another country. I asked him, “how do you decide which programme is right for which country?” He said, “I don’t”.
“Why would I know any better than anyone else?” he continued. “I don’t make these decisions”. But he does make sure to set up a system that enables the organisation to arrive at a good set of decisions. For example, each year, they organise what is called “The Fremantle Market”. It is a one-day event in London, for which Fremantle executives from all over the world fly in. They present to each other their new television programmes, which they have just had commissioned or developed pilots for.
Hence, Tony (or anyone else at Fremantle’s head-office) does not decide which programme to invest in and promote as their next international winner, but he sets up the organisational system in order for local people to make their own decisions. This will enable their next global hit to emerge, without knowing in advance which programme that will be. Sometimes he expected it; sometimes it’s a programme that he never thought would see the light of day.
But often that is not the role we expect CEOs to assume. We expect them to make the decisions, quickly and without hesitation or even a drop of sweat.
It reminded me of Andy Grove, when he was CEO at Intel. When Intel, in the 1980s, was in doubt whether to concentrate on DRAM memory chips or on microprocessors, people (employees, analysts, shareholders, etc.) were banging on his door, asking “please Andy, make a decision; are we going for DRAM or for microprocessors? Tell me what to do”. But Andy said, “I don’t know yet. No, I am not going to make a decision; let’s see how things play out”:
“You need to be able to be ambiguous in some circumstances. You dance around it a bit, until a wider and wider group in the company becomes clear about it”. Andrew Grove
I’d say his “indecisiveness” served Andy rather well, as Intel became one of the most successful and profitable companies in the world for the ensuing two decades. Not by making a tough decision quickly and decisively, but by not making it at all, yet instead enabling the organisation to do it for him – just like Tony Cohen let’s his organisation decide what television programmes to promote.