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Posted: March 25, 2011

Between a rock and a hard place

Decision-marking under duress

Todd Ordal

I recently talked with a CEO who felt like he was between a rock and a hard place. Frankly, he was! He was short on cash, and had neglected to recraft his business strategy as he watched his industry go through dramatic change. As he described his situation, I was reminded of a family event.

About 10 years ago, I took three of my kids to Mexico for a vacation. We found a condo in Akumal, which had some outstanding beaches and great snorkeling. Several locals told us that we had to check out a local phenomenon called a cenote. For those who don't know (I didn't), cenotes are fresh water pools or sinkholes, often connected by underground rivers.

So one afternoon, we loaded our snorkel gear into the car and drove down this bumpy dirt road to find our cenote. We parked the car, walked down a dirt path and found this cave like structure with an absolutely beautiful pool of water in it. I'd already jumped into the pool when my daughter's mask fell in and started sinking. I dove down and rescued it, but unfortunately I didn't have my mask on and I lost both of my contacts. I was now vision-impaired but was determined not to let it affect our fun.

We all enjoyed swimming around this pool and watching several scuba divers disappear below us. After a few minutes, a local boy yelled at my kids to follow him. He swam to the edge, took a deep breath and went under. Without a thought, all of my kids followed him ... and they didn't resurface.

Without many apparent options, I followed them and popped up into an air pocket perhaps 10 or 15 feet beyond the cenote wall. It was rather dark, which further challenged my already poor vision. I saw the kids but before I could find my breath to yell at them, the Mexican boy plunged underwater again with my kids following. I followed the kids and ended up in a smaller and darker space, and this time used an R-rated version of "Stop!" They did, but the local kid dove again and was gone.

I was now quite frightened. I didn't know where we were, didn't know the exact direction out, had poor vision and was feeling very responsible for the well-being of three other humans. If we went under and swam the wrong way, we were dead! We also couldn't just stay where we were.

This is how my CEO friend was feeling. Poor visibility, unsure where he was or where he should go, responsible for many people's welfare and no plan for the future (which had now become the present). He and his executive team had been treading water for many years.

Luckily for my kids, I found a wee bit of calm, used what information I had, asked for their concurrence that we were heading the right way and took action. Had we not done something, we would've used our energy treading water until we eventually ran out of gas and drowned.

This is pretty much the path that I suggested for the CEO: Gather information, involve your team in the decision and then take action. If you are someone who appreciates models, think of OAR. What are the Objectives (musts and wants)? What are the Alternatives? What are the Risks?

Whether you're stuck in the water below a million pounds of rock or running a company, treading water isn't a good long-term strategy.

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Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy LLC. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He speaks, writes, consults and advises on issues of strategy and leadership. Todd is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Follow Todd on Twitter here. You can also find Todd at http://www.appliedstrategy.info,  303-527-0417 or todd@appliedstrategy.info

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