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How I Make Decisions

Todd McKinnon

Being a founder is different than any other job. Everywhere else you have a boss and when you start your own company for the first time in your career you don’t. For me, the revelation was suddenly being the guy who made the decisions. I’d made decisions before, but there was always someone who could overrule me or take accountability. It’s different when you’re the one in charge.

I first experienced this feeling when Okta was just five people and we needed to make a decision on product direction. At the time, we were also considering focusing on performance management. The whole team talked about what to do. Then there was a point where people stopped making new arguments and the conversation started getting circular. It was clear people were waiting for me to decide. I ended up sticking with identity management, which turned out to be the right decision.

As the company has grown, my decision-making has actually gotten less decisive. You hear about Steve Jobs and founders like him who just make snap judgments that are always right, but I’m not like that. I find that as the consequences of my decisions keep getting bigger, I want to think about them longer. I know that I finally have to decide when I see the first signs of thrash, with people starting to move in different directions.

There is one thing I’m resolute about: Don’t say yes to everything. This is a temptation for startup CEOs, especially early on. You don’t want to stifle ideas, so you approve every new thing that comes your way.

The problem is that if you say yes to everything what’s really happening is that the decisions about what to do are being made by someone else. As a startup you don’t have the resources to do everything. So if people aren’t coming to you with ideas that need to be rejected, it means that they’re the ones making the decisions about what your company should do based on the filtering they do before things ever get to you.

The most effective way to lead in my experience is to make sure you have a plan in place for everything you approve. That way you know you have the resources necessary for the new thing to succeed.

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