The Greatest Business Decisions of All Time

Article by:
Verne Harnish, EO Spain-Barcelona
Verne Harnish
EO Spain-Barcelona

As business expert Jim Collins wrote in the forward of my new book, “We’re living in times of tremendous uncertainty. Many growthcompany CEOs feel rudderless.” Jim goes on to ask: “What is the key thing you can do about that uncertainty? You can have the right people with you.”

And once you do, he notes, you have to make the right decisions. Often that means asking those great people you brought on board to guide you in areas outside of your core expertise. Jim’s research shows unequivocally that those leaders who made a series of great decisions over time “were very comfortable saying, ‘I don’t know.’” If there’s one thing that every growth company must do to build and maintain a competitive edge in today’s fast-paced global economy, it’s make great decisions.

A truism of life is that success equals the sum total of every decision one makes. And as Jim suggests, it’s the combination of thousands of decisions that lead to greatness. And yet, there seem to be a handful of decisions that stand apart from the rest. They are often those fateful “bet the farm” moments, when a CEO can go left or right, or not go at all. In my experience, the choices great leaders end up making are often counterintuitive and move companies, industries and even nations in entirely new directions.

Who was Andy Grove to think he could make a commodity computer chip a household name? Now, we have “Intel Inside.” What executive in his right mind would give his employees time to daydream? But that’s exactly what 3M CEO William McKnight did in 1948. In the end, business decisions like these stood out because they went against the grain of popular practice and unleashed a storm of imitation. Great business decisions have stood the test of time because they create tremendous value, while offering lessons learned that other business leaders can adopt and apply.

Here are my top five favorite business decisions of all time, in reverse order:

5. General Electric: Jack Welch’s decision to go “all in” and fund Crotonville, a first-class training center, set the tone for thousands of businesses to create corporate universities. That decision also helped develop a generation of leaders at GE who have gone on to run countless other companies.

4. Samsung: The decision by this South Korean electronics giant two decades ago to launch an unprecedented sabbatical program, placing star employees in far-flung places around the globe for a year, continues to drive Samsung’s prominence as a top 20 brand.

3. Wal-Mart: Sam Walton’s decision to launch a simple, Saturday morning meeting for all employees in his first store has led to 50 years of rapid decision-making, and helped create one of the largest companies in the world.

2. Apple: The decision to bring back Steve Jobs as CEO of the company he founded, after a decade-long absence, resulted in “the best work of his life,” and the most valuable public company in the world.

1. Ford: Henry Ford’s decision to double the wages of his employees meant that workers were no longer viewed as drones to be paid as cheaply as possible, but as valuable assets.

As a result, workers could afford the very products they were producing. That triggered a consumer revolution that would eventually help create the wealthiest nation on earth. These are just a few of the decisions that have helped shape the global business landscape as we know it. At the end of the day, it’s the decisions we make as entrepreneurs that help us reach new levels of success and significance. How will your decisions define your business?

Verne Harnish is the founding partner of Gazelles, Inc., a leadership- and business-building firm. Fun fact: Verne is the author of numerous business books, including his latest, The Greatest Business Decisions of All Time.


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