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How to Play “Who’s in the Chair?” for Better Decision-Making

“Is this decision going to make the customer and the partner proud?” Starbucks founder Howard Schultz likes to ask this question whenever he’s in a management team meeting. What helps him remember to test his decision-making in this way is to imagine two empty chairs at the table—one for the customer and one for his employees, whom he refers to as partners.

While Schultz prefers to visualize two empty chairs at his meetings, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos physically places one empty chair at the table to symbolize the customer. At Amazon, Bezos says that “obsessing over the customer experience is the only long-term defensible competitive advantage,” so reserving a seat for the customer at every meeting keeps the customer top of mind.

Using an empty chair to work through what or who is missing has origins in the therapeutic profession and was made famous by psychologist Frederick “Fitz” Perls in the 1960s. A classic use of “transformational chairwork” was to help the patient visualize and role-play with who wasn’t in the room.

Whether it’s a physical reminder or a chair we visualize, the business of chairwork that takes place during important meetings helps leaders ask questions like, “Who in this room needs a voice who doesn’t have one?” More specifically, it calls for imagining what stakeholders might think of your decision.

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This idea reminds me of a decision-making standard we held ourselves to in my executive meetings at Prologis. We asked ourselves not only, “What should we do?” but also “What is the right thing to do?” These questions always prompted perspective-taking—a discussion that called on each of us to consider who was affected and how they were impacted. This exploration typically revealed something we hadn’t initially considered.

Union Square Ventures Cofounder Fred Wilson had a similar epiphany surrounding perspective when he gave a speech at a board meeting where the company’s financing was discussed. Everyone in the room had an agenda. The founders didn’t want to dilute their equity, the investors didn’t prioritize valuation because they’d be investing more, and the management team was concerned about protecting their team. Wilson recalled saying, “[T]he one person who is not in the room is the company. The company can’t speak for itself … If I could imagine myself as that thing, that company, what would I want? And then we should all be advocating for that.”

Leading with Cultural Intelligence author David Livermore agrees with the power of perspective-taking but also emphasizes the importance of leaving your assumptions at the door. In other words, ask yourself how much you know about your target audience. Or if the empty chair symbolizes employees, ask how much institutional knowledge you have about your people. If you know the answers to these prompts, then you’ll have an easier job of adopting perspectives.

Schulz has been a student of his company and his “partners” since the 1980s. Perspective-taking has been a strategy that has helped him validate the responses to many management deliberations. He explains that if the answer to the silent question he asks himself is “remotely gray, I know I’m on the wrong side of the debate.”

Comments

  1. SHANNON HARVEY

    Hi Walt –
    Can’t wait to read your book. As I read today’s post, I thought about my former employer – a community college in central PA . In all of our conference rooms where decisions were made, we had photos of students on the walls. The photos were meant to remind the team of who should be at the heart of our decision making…similar to empty chairs at the table. Great reminder to remember who we serve. Stay well!
    Shannon Harvey

    Reply to SHANNON HARVEY

    1. Walt Rakowich

      Wow! What powerful imagery, Shannon! It’d be really hard *not* to factor them into your decisions – and the duty of care you owe them – when you can see them so directly. Thanks for sharing.

      Reply to Walt Rakowich

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