Eric Allais is President & CEO of PathGuide Technologies, which provides warehouse management and shipping solutions to distributors.
I was recently asked what advice I could give aspiring business leaders to help them make purposeful decisions. After seriously considering this question, I remembered one Harvard Business Review article I read several years ago about when it is safe to trust your intuition and when it is not. The main conclusion I took from the article was the realization that we often rely too much on data and statistics and not enough on our expertise and intuition.
While your finance team’s spreadsheets may be accurate, they may ultimately lead you to arrive at a decision or alternative without real perspective. For example, those spreadsheets fail to account for market shifts or competitive threats looming on the horizon, or they may not even address the need to leverage product or service advantages that are strategic to the company.
This is where I believe intuition stands the test of time as a key differentiator for successful business leaders. It can be wasteful to overthink or overcomplicate problems, issues, and concerns that should be intuitive. I recommend saving the fact-gathering for decisions with strategic impact, higher risk, or greater business benefit. Trusting one’s intuition is a natural, perhaps unconscious, exercise in moving forward; get things done; and save time, energy and costs.
Of course, this all sounds great on paper (or on a computer screen), but how can you tap into your intuition, know when to use it, and even find this innate ability in others?
Understand the basics of one’s intuition.
First and foremost, it is important to understand what forms the basis of a strong sense of intuition. Intuition is a feeling that can result in good (or bad) results, and it can be honed through experience. As a pilot, if I’m making an approach to land, but the plane isn’t configured correctly and I’ve already used too much runway, intuition – through training and practice – tells me to circle and try the approach again. Think of intuition as a safety net that can alert you to situations where you may feel less comfortable.
Let’s use public speaking as another example. Maybe you’ve never presented to a large audience and don’t like the idea of doing so. Getting those butterflies that come with the thought of speaking in front of a group helps you identify the source of that fear. Do you know what content you will be presenting? Did you practice? How well do you know your audience? Are your thoughts coherent, well organized, or maybe even amusing? As you begin to map out each of these steps in the process, you’ll understand the time frame you need to present. And with that understanding and repetition comes a feeling, or intuition, that can lead you to greater success.
Recognize situations where intuition can be most valuable.
Once you have “discovered” your intuition, it is extremely valuable to recognize the types of situations where it can be most valuable. Suppose you have a supplier that is performing poorly. It’s not always necessary to create a scorecard, develop an improvement plan, issue an ultimatum, or spend unnecessary time on other energy-consuming endeavors. Instead, choose a different supplier and don’t overanalyze the decision.
Ask yourself if there are significant factors at play that could mandate financial resources, staff disruption, or even competitiveness. These decisions deserve more analysis to weigh both the pros and cons of a likely outcome. For example, maybe you are reorganizing the structure and reporting of different teams with the goal of a more efficient and effective workforce. You can rely on your gut feeling and make the decision through an edict or proclamation from management, which is rather naive and arrogant, or you can gather critical facts and trusted opinions on how your reorganization proposal will improve productivity, adjustment, morale, etc. could influence. and analysis of the situation, challenges and opportunities is the best way forward as it better aligns individuals and their respective teams around a common goal.
Declaring a “it’s because I said so” and “believe me, I know what I’m doing” attitude will backfire over time. When you have to postpone your plan because employee resistance is insurmountable, you risk wasting time, embarrassment and losing your credibility.
Identify who your aspiring leaders are.
Finally, it’s important to focus on identifying current employees, or even potential candidates, who can bring a strong sense of intuition to their leadership role. For starters, you need to know who to coach and mentor internally. Look for employees who have demonstrated the best operational and financial success for the company, then identify among them those who have the most interest and potential.
But don’t stop there. Instead of researching every possible candidate, take a chance and promote them. Make the move based on the intuition you’ve built up about that person.
When it comes to hiring outside candidates who can bring strong intuition to the position, look for those who have enough relevant experience to make their intuition reliable. In the HBR article I mentioned, the author said, “It takes a surprising amount of domain-specific expertise to develop accurate intuitive judgments — about 10 years, according to the research.” If you ask an applicant to describe a situation that called for common sense and they answer quickly, that’s probably a really good sign. If they think long and hard to come up with an example, it might be a not so good sign.
At the end of the day, I think data can be relied on too much to build a case. Intuition can help you quickly arrive at a reasonable solution. While some data can certainly be a perspective that paints a bigger picture, it shouldn’t just outweigh your intuition that comes from the experience of doing something repeatedly for a decade or more.
To help aspiring business leaders learn to follow their intuition and find it in others, I remind them that, above all, “When your intuition speaks, listen.”