Nov 162017

Deals are not done until they are done

We were excited to close the sale of our Consumer Insights business last week to Edison, as I blogged about last week on the Return Path blog.  But it brought back to mind the great Yogi Berra quote that “it ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

We’ve done lots of deals over our 18 year existence.  Something like 12 or 13 acquisitions and 5 spin-offs or divestitures.  And a very large number of equity and debt financings.

We’ve also had four deals that didn’t get done.  One was an acquisition we were going to make that we pulled away from during due diligence because we found some things in due diligence that proved our acquisition thesis incorrect.  We pulled the plug on that one relatively early.  I’m sure it was painful for the target company, but the timing was mid-process, and that is what due diligence is for.  One was a financing that we had pretty much ready to go right around the time the markets melted down in late 2008.

But the other two were deals that fell apart when they were literally at the goal line – all legal work done, Boards either approved or lined up to approve, press releases written.  One was an acquisition we were planning to make, and the other was a divestiture.  Both were horrible experiences.  No one likes being left at the altar.  The feeling in the moment is terrible, but the clean-up afterwards is tough, too.  As one of my board members said at the time of one of these two incidents – “what do you do with all the guests and the food?”

What I learned from these two experiences, and they were very different from each other and also a while back now, is a few things:

  • If you’re pulling out of a deal, give the bad news as early as possible, but absolutely give the news.  We actually had one of the “fall apart at the goal line” deals where the other party literally didn’t show up for the closing and never returned a phone call after that.  Amateur hour at its worst
  • When you’re giving the bad news, do it as directly as possible – and offer as much constructive feedback as possible.  Life is long, and there’s no reason to completely burn a relationship if you don’t have to
  • Use the due diligence and documentation period to regularly pull up and ask if things are still on track.  It’s easy in the heat and rapid pace of a deal to lose sight of the original thesis, economic justification, or some internal commitments.  The time to remember those is not at the finish line
  • Sellers should consider asking for a breakup fee in some situations.  This is tough and of course cuts both ways – I wouldn’t want to agree to one as a buyer.  But if you get into a process that’s likely to cause damage to your company if it doesn’t go through by virtue of the process itself, it’s a reasonable ask

But mostly, my general rule now is to be skeptical right up until the very last minute.

Because deals are not done until they are done.

Oct 052017

When in Doubt, Apply a Framework (but be sure to keep them fresh!)

I’ve always been a big believer in the consistent application frameworks for business thinking and decision-making.  Frameworks are just a great starting point to spark conversation and organize thinking, especially when you’re faced with a new situation.  Last year, I read Tom Friedman’s new book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, and he had this great line that reminded me of the power of frameworks and that it extends far beyond business decision-making:

When you put your value set together with your analysis of how the Machine works and your understanding of how it is affecting people and culture in different contexts, you have a worldview that you can then apply to all kinds of situations to produce your opinions. Just as a data scientist needs an algorithm to cut through all the unstructured data and all the noise to see the relevant patterns, an opinion writer needs a worldview to create heat and light. 

In Startup CEO, I wrote about a bunch of different frameworks we have used over the years at Return Path, from vetting new business ideas to selecting a type of capital and investor for a capital raise.  I blogged about a new one that I learned from my dad a few months ago on delegation.  One of my favorite business authors, Geoffrey Moore, has developed more frameworks than I can count and remember about product and product-market fit.

But all frameworks can go stale over time, and they can also get bogged down and confused with pattern recognition, which has limitations.  To that end, Friedman also addressed this point:

But to keep that worldview fresh and relevant…you have to be constantly reporting and learning—more so today than ever. Anyone who falls back on tried-and-true formulae or dogmatisms in a world changing this fast is asking for trouble. Indeed, as the world becomes more interdependent and complex, it becomes more vital than ever to widen your aperture and to synthesize more perspectives.

Again, although Friedman talks about this in relation to journalism, the same can be applied to business.  Take even the most basic framework, the infamous BCG “Growth/Share Matrix” that compares Market Growth and Market Share and divides your businesses into Dogs, Cash Cows, Question Marks, and Stars.  Digital Marketing has disrupted some of the core economics of firms, so there are a number of businesses that you might previously have said were in the Dog quadrant but due to improved economics of customer acquisition can either be moved into Cash Cow or at least Question Mark.  Or maybe the 2×2 isn’t absolute any more, and it now needs to be a 2×3.

The business world is dynamic, and frameworks, ever important, need to keep pace as well.

Aug 312017

Agile Everywhere, Part II

Over the years, I’ve written a lot about the Agile methodology on this blog. For those of you who are regular readers, you may remember a post I wrote about our Agile Everywhere initiative— where all Return Path teams were tasked with implementing agile practices. A little over a year later, I want to update you on our agile journey–where we are now and how we got there.  My colleague Cathy Hawley (our head of People) will write a more detailed series of guest posts  for those of you who want to get more details of our transformation process.

Before we started our Agile Everywhere initiative, only our product and engineering teams were using agile. The rest of the organization (a few hundred people!) weren’t at all familiar with agile practices. Despite this, there were a few things that helped accelerate our transformation:

  1. Strong executive buy-in
  2. A clear vision
  3. Agile-friendly company culture and values
  4. A passionate project team
  5. Resident agile experts

These 5 initial ingredients proved to be essential and enabled us to hit the ground running in Q1 2016. We started out by experimenting with non-technical pilot teams from all different offices, functions, and levels. After a couple months of experimentation, early qualitative results from pilot team members suggested that implementing agile principles was enhancing team communication and productivity. So we embarked on our next step, implementing agile practices across all non-technical teams at Return Path.

We are now 18 months into our transformation and the data shows us that the transformation is helping with our productivity:  we track a  metric that is comprised of many different measures of business performance that fall into 3 main themes–operating efficiency, planning effectiveness, and business success. So far we have already seen a 51% increase in the metric from Q4 2015 (before our Agile Everywhere initiative) to Q1 2017. We are emboldened by these promising results, but still have a lot of work to do to ensure that all teams at RP are taking full advantage of agile and reaping its benefits. Keep an eye out for Cathy Hawley’s posts for more information about our agile adventure, soon to be published the RP blog.

When the series is over, I’ll publish a summary with all the specific post links here as well.

Aug 102017

The Value and Limitations of Pattern Recognition

My father-in-law, who is a doctor by training but now a health care executive, was recently talking about an unusual medical condition that someone in the family was fighting.  He had a wonderful expression he said docs use from time to time:

When you hear hoof beats, it’s probably horses. But you never know when it might be a zebra.

With experience (and presumably some mental wiring) comes the ability to recognize patterns.  It’s one of those things that doesn’t happen, no matter how smart you are, without the passage of time and seeing different scenarios play out in the wild.  It’s one of the big things that I’ve found that VC investors as Board members, and independent directors, bring to the Board room.  Good CEOs and senior executives will bring it to their jobs.  Good lawyers, doctors, and accountants will bring it to their professions.  If X, Y, and Z, then I am fairly certain of P, D, and Q.  Good pattern recognition allows you to make better decisions, short circuit lengthy processes, avoid mistakes, and much better understand risks.  The value of it is literally priceless.  Good pattern recognition in our business has accelerated all kinds of operational things and sparked game changing strategic thinking; it has also saved us over the years from making bad hires, making bad acquisitions, and executing poorly on everything from system implementations to process design.  Lack of pattern recognition has also cost us on a few things as well, where something seemed like a good idea but turned out not to be – but it was something no one around the Board table had any specific experience with.

But there’s a limitation, and even a downside to good pattern recognition as well.  And that is simple – pattern recognition of things in the past is not a guarantee that those same things will be true in the future.  Just because a big client’s legal or procurement team is negotiating something just like they did last time around doesn’t mean they want the same outcome this time around.  Just because you acquired a company in a new location and couldn’t manage the team remotely doesn’t mean you won’t be able to be successful doing that with another company.

The area where I worry the most about pattern recognition producing flawed results is in the area of hiring.  Unconscious bias is hard to fight, and stripping out markers that trigger unconscious bias is something everyone should try to do when interviewing/hiring – our People team is very focused on this and does a great job steering all of us around it.  But if you’re good at pattern recognition, it can cause a level of confidence that can trigger unconscious biases.  “The last person I hired out of XYZ company was terrible, so I’m inclined not to hire the next person who worked there.”  “Every time we promote someone from front-line sales into sales management, it doesn’t work out.”  You get the idea.

Because when you hear hoof beats, it’s probably horses.  But you never know when it might be a zebra!

Jun 292017

Delegating Decision-Making

My dad (one of my main CEO/entrepreneur role models) and I team-teach a business school class in entrepreneurial leadership every year at USD where a friend of his is the professor.  Sometimes I go in person, usually I just do it by video.  We did this a few weeks ago, and my dad talked through a decision-making framework that I’d never heard him mention before.

I sketched it out and really like it and am already using it internally, so I thought I would share it here as well:

To walk through it, delegating decision-making to someone on your team can be as simple as understanding where a decision falls along two different spectrums.  On the vertical axis is “How familiar is the person with this type of decision?” – meaning, has the person seen and made this kind of decision before?  This could be something like firing an employee, signing a contract, negotiating a vendor agreement.  On the horizontal axis is “What are the consequences of getting the decision wrong?” – which is really self explanatory…how big a deal is this?

The primary, upper right quadrant of “The person has made this decision before, and it’s not a huge deal” is an easy one – delegate the decision-making authority.  The two middle quadrants of “big deal, but familiar with the decision” and “never seen this before, but not a big deal” are ripe for the old adage of ask forgiveness later, not permission first, meaning it’s ok to delegate decision-making authority, but hold the person accountable for letting you know about decisions like that so you can be on the lookout for potential required clean-up.

But what I love most is the way my dad framed the final quadrant (lower left here), which is “high stakes decision, never seen this situation before.”  It can be tempting for a senior manager or CEO to just take this quadrant over and remove decision-making authority from a team member.  But it’s also a perfect teaching/coaching moment.  So the rule of thumb for this quadrant is “make the decision with me, but please come to me with a proposal on it.”

And that’s why my dad is such a great business mentor!

Apr 062017

What kind of team do you run? Of Generalists and Specialists…

A friend of mine just left his job as CEO of a growth stage company to become CFO of a Fortune 500 company.  That’s a big deal…and also a big change.  When I was talking to him about the move, he said the following to me:

Some executive teams are like baseball teams.  You play shortstop, and you bat 8th.  That’s just what you do.  The team needs one of those because the sport is structured that way.  The CEO of my new company likes to run his executive team as a basketball team.  Everyone has a position, but everyone also has to be capable of doing everything on the court well – shooting, blocking, rebounding, passing – and is expected to go after the ball any time it’s nearby.

It’s one thing to say that of a Fortune 200 company, because you have the luxury of doing anything you want in terms of staffing at those levels.  My friend, who is financially oriented for sure, can be CFO of a company of that size because they probably have a strong Chief Accounting Officer.  But how does that dialog apply to startups?  Should you run a baseball team?  A basketball team?  Does it matter?  Can you switch between the two?

My take is that early stage startups need to be more like basketball teams.  You just don’t have enough people to get everything done unless you all take things off each others’ plates.  And you certainly don’t want to be siloed early on in a company’s life as you’re trying to find product-market fit and get those first customers on board.  Your CTO needs to be in front of customers in sales pitches.  Your CFO needs to run customer service and other staff functions.  Everyone needs to pitch in on strategy.

As companies grow, I think they need to become more like baseball teams because larger organizations require levels of specialized knowledge that you don’t often find in startup leaders (though you certainly can, especially as the world becomes more startup-oriented) if they are to survive and scale.  You need a CFO capable of putting in place more complex systems and controls.  You need a head of Sales who knows how to manage a more disciplined pipeline and sales power-driven machine, not just someone who is a fantastic closer of big deals.

At the larger sizes (well below the Fortune 500 level), you can afford to have more of a basketball team again.  You want people with areas of specialization, but you also just want great athletes, and you can have some of the more technical expertise working at the next couple levels down.

There are two challenges this metaphor raises for scaling businesses.  The first one is making your baseball team AS MUCH LIKE A BASKETBALL TEAM AS POSSIBLE when you’re in that mode.  Why?  I love baseball more than most as a sport, but executive teams of companies at any size need strategic thinkers and interdisciplinary, cross-functional work as much as possible.

And that leads to my second challenge with the metaphor, which is that you don’t want to swap out your executive team multiple times in a rapidly scaling business if you don’t have to.  So this begs the question – can you turn a great specialist into a great generalist and vice versa?  We have gone through transitions this past few years at Return Path from a functional structure to a business unit structure and back (sort of).  My take in the end is that it’s easier to turn a specialist into a generalist than to turn a generalist into a specialist.  You can interview for this.  There are great specialists in every discipline who are capable of being generalist thinkers.  But it’s really tough to take someone without proper training and experience in some disciplines and make them a specialist.  Not impossible (although in some disciplines it actually is impossible – think about General Counsel), but difficult.

Filed under: Business, Leadership, Management

Mar 302017

Everything is Data, Part II – Get Those Expenses In

Everything is Data, Part II – Get Those Expenses In

My friend and former colleague Angela Baldonero (used to run our People Team at Return Path, now is COO of super cool startup Procurify), used to say about her job as head of HR, “Everything is Data.”  She guest blogged about that principle on OnlyOnce years ago here , and she particularly cited this theory when talking about the recruiting and hiring process.

I’ve thought about this principle a lot over the years, and I’ve occasionally come up with other examples where I think peripheral data can inform whether or not an employee will succeed, at least in my world.  I don’t know how many of these can be caught in an interview process, but that’s worth thinking about.  Here’s one for today’s post:  I’ve noticed a very high correlation over the years between poor performance and being late turning in expenses.

I know, it sounds silly.  But think about it.  Most of the work we do involves some level of being organized, being on time, prioritizing work and working efficiently, and caring about money (whether the company’s money or our own money).  Someone who can’t bother to fill out a quick expense report following a business trip is demonstrating an absence of all of those traits.  The most glaring example of it we ever had here involved a fairly senior sales executive years ago who was delinquent in his expenses to the tune of over $40,000.  That’s right, $40,000.  It was so bad that our auditors made us footnote it in our annual audit.  We begged him to turn in his expenses.  We even offered to have him send a pile of all the receipts to us and have someone in Accounting help him out.  But he was always too busy, made too many excuses for why he couldn’t get them done.  I think it ended up taking us firing him for him to actually clean them up and get paid back.  Why did we fire him?  He was ineffective in his role, unresponsive to colleagues, unable to prioritize his work, and sloppy in his deliverables.

By the way, the opposite is not true – someone who is incredibly punctual about getting expenses in is not guaranteed to be a high performer, although they are usually guaranteed to at least be organized (which for some roles may be a critical success factor).

I suppose ultimately this is just another example of Broken Windows, which I blogged about in two different places, here and here.

 

Jan 122017

Reboot – Back to Basics

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I’m rebooting my work self this year, and this quarter in particular.  One of the things I am doing is getting back to basics on a few fronts.

Over the holiday break, as I was contemplating a reboot, I emailed a handful of people with whom I’ve worked closely over the years, but for the most part people with whom I no longer work day in day out, to ask them a few questions.  The questions were fairly backward looking:

1.       When I was at my best, what were my personal habits or routines that stand out in your mind?

2.       When I was at my best, what were my work behaviors or routines that stand out in your mind?

3.       When our EC was at its best, what were the team dynamics that caused it to function so well?

I got some wonderful responses, including one which productively challenged the premise of asking backward-looking questions as I was trying to reboot for the future.  (The answer is that this was one of several things I was doing as part of Rebooting, not the only thing, and historical perspective is one of many useful tools.)

Although the question clearly led itself to this, the common theme across all the answers was “back to basics.”  Part of evolving myself as a CEO as the company has grown over the years has been stopping doing particular things and starting others intentionally.  I try to do that at least once a year.  But what this particular exercise taught me is that, like the proverbial boiled frog, there were a slew of small and medium-sized things that I’ve stopped doing over the years unintentionally that are positive and productive habits that I miss.  I have a long list of these items, and I probably won’t want or need to get to all of them.  But there are a few that I think are critical to my success for various reasons.  Some of the more noteworthy ones are:

  • Blogging, which I mentioned in last week’s post as an important way for me to reflect and crystallize my thinking on specific topics
  • Ensuring that I have enough open time on my calendar to breathe, think, keep current with things.  When every minute of every day is scheduled, I am working harder, but not smarter
  • Be more engaged with people at the office.  This relates to having open time on the calendar.  Yesterday I sat in our kitchen area and had a quick lunch with a handful of colleagues who I don’t normally interact with.  It was such a nice break from my routine of “sit at desk, order food in” or “important business lunch,” I got to clear my head a little bit, and I got to know a couple things about a couple people in the office that I didn’t previously know
  • Get closer to the front lines internally.  Although I’ve maintained good external contacts as the company has grown with key clients and partners, our multi-business-unit structure has had me too disconnected from Sales and Engineering/Product in particular.  This one may take a couple months to enact, but I need to get closer to the action internally to truly understand what’s going on in the business
  • Get back to a rigorous use of a single Operating System.  I’ve written a lot about this over the years, but having a David-Allen style, single place where I track all critical to do’s for me and for my team has always been bedrock for me.  I’ve been experimenting with some different ways of doing this over the last couple years, which has led to a breakdown in Allen’s main principle of “put it all in one place” – so I am going to work on fixing that
  • Reading – while I have been consistently and systematically working my way through American history and Presidential biographies books over the years, I’ve almost entirely stopped reading other books for lack of time.  A well-balanced reading diet is critical for me.  So I’m working in some other books now from the other genres I love – humor (Martini Wonderland is awesome), architecture (see last week’s post on The Fountainhead), current events (I’m in the middle of Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project and next up is Tom Friedman’s Thank You For Being Late), and business books (about to start Kotter’s A Sense of Urgency)
  • Like reading, doing something creative and unrelated to work has always been an important part of keeping my brain fresh.  Coaching little league has helped a lot.  But I need to add something that’s more purely creative.  I am still deciding between taking guitar lessons (I halfway know how to play) and sculpting lessons (I don’t know a thing about it)

That’s it for now.  There are other basics that I never let lapse (for example, exercise).  But the common theme of the above, I realize now that I am writing it all out, isn’t only “back to basics.”  It’s about creating time and space for me to be fresh and exercise different muscles instead of grinding it out all day, every day.  And that’s well worth the few minutes it took me and my friends to work up this list!

Hopefully I’ll have more to say on the general topic of rebooting in another week or two as January craziness sets in with our annual kickoff meetings around the world.

Apr 072016

Managing Up

(The following post was written by one of Return Path’s long-time senior managers, Chris Borgia, who runs one of our data science teams and has run other support organizations in the past, both at Return Path and at AOL.  I don’t usually run guest posts, but I loved the topic with Chris suggested it, and it’s a topic that I’d only have a limited perspective on!)

Managing Up in a Growing, Global Workplace

For many years, I thought “managing up” was a cheap way of getting ahead. I thought someone who managed up was skilled at deceiving their boss into thinking they were more accomplished than they really were.

I have since learned that managing up, or managing your boss, is not devious, but is actually a valuable discipline. When you learn to manage up successfully, you empower your boss to better represent your interests to influencers in the organization.

If you are a manager, you should realize that in addition to managing your boss, you can help your employees effectively manage you. When our employees help us to be successful, we are further enabled to invest in their success. This symbiosis is seen in any relationship – the more you help the other person, the more they will be able to – and want to – help you. If you are a manager, it’s important to realize that your employees should be managing up, and you can encourage them to do so by being vulnerable, admitting ignorance, and asking for support.

There are many books and articles on managing up or managing one’s boss. The essentials are fairly consistent:

  • Understand your boss’s goals, priorities, and needs
  • Know your boss’s strengths and weaknesses
  • Set mutual expectations to build trust
  • Communicate and keep your boss informed

You’ll need to be intentional about the essentials no matter where you work, but there are additional challenges of managing up in a growing, global workplace like Return Path. In a growing company, you’re likely to work for a boss who is new to their role, the company or the industry. In a global company, you may report to a boss who works in another office, or even in another country. The fundamental aspects of managing up are the same, but these situations can require a tailored approach.

When your boss is new to their role, the company, or the industry

In a growing company, you’re likely to report to someone who is new to their role in the company, new to the company itself, or even new to the industry. You can be invaluable to your boss in closing the knowledge gap and enabling them to make the best decisions for you and your team.

  • Process Help your boss understand how the department operates. How are goals and priorities determined? How do people communicate? What does the team expect from the boss?
  • People If your boss doesn’t know the people, they may lack the appropriate empathy in a given situation. Help them understand your team’s needs and how their decisions impact the people.
  • Decision Making Your boss will likely need additional data to help them make decisions. Providing your boss with this data up front, saving them from admitting ignorance, will go a long way to developing a strong relationship.
  • Context Sometimes your boss won’t know what they don’t know, so providing your boss the context around issues, decisions, and goals will enable them to make the best decisions for your team.

When your boss works in another office or country

In a global workplace, it’s likely that at some point you will have a boss who works in another office or even in another country. Having a remote boss offers many opportunities for managing up.

  • Visibility Your boss doesn’t see you – or possibly others on the team – every day, so you might want to communicate more about the day-to-day operations of the team. At times, it will feel like you are sharing minutia, but it’s likely your boss will find this valuable in developing a complete understanding of what is going on.
  • Insight If you work in a core office, you have a tremendous opportunity to be your boss’s eyes and ears.  What are you seeing or hearing locally that might change your boss’s plans or perspective? What are people worried about? Are there any rumors your boss should be aware of?
  • Culture If your boss is in a different country, you will need to develop a relationship that considers any cultural differences. Cultural differences are seen in office attire, working hours, email habits, vacation schedules, and more. Bosses in some cultures may expect more deference, while in others they may expect more direct honesty. Understanding your boss’s culture, and helping her understand yours, will develop mutual respect and expectations to make each other successful.

Your relationship with your boss is a symbiotic one. Your boss can’t be successful unless you are, so they are your champion.  Learning to effectively manage up, especially in a growing, global workplace, is not nefarious business. Your boss will represent and support you to the best of their abilities. The more you enable your boss, the better they can support you, and everybody wins.

Jan 072016

The Illusion and (Mis)uses of Certainty

September’s Harvard Business Review had a really thought-provoking article for me called How Certainty Transforms Persuasion.  Seth Godin wrote a blog post around the same time called The Illusion of Control.  The two together make for an interesting think about using information to shape behavior as leaders.  I’ve often been accused of delivering too many mixed messages to the company at all-hands meetings, so I enjoyed the think, though not in the way I expected to.

Let’s start with Seth’s thesis, which is easier to get through.  Essentially he says that nothing is certain, at best we can influence events, we’re never actually in control of situations…but that we think we are:

When the illusion of control collides with the reality of influence, it highlights the fable the entire illusion is based on…You’re responsible for what you do, but you don’t have authority and control over the outcome. We can hide from that, or we can embrace it.

Moving onto the much longer HBR article, the key thesis there is that certainty shapes our behavior, as the more certain we are of a belief (whether it’s correct or incorrect), the more it influences us:

In short, certainty is the catalyst that turns attitudes into action, bringing beliefs to life and imbuing them with meaning and consequence.

At first, it seems like these two positions might be at odds with each other, but there are other interesting nuggets in the HBR article as well that tie the two positions together.  First, that the packaging of information influences the certainty of the consumers of that information (for example, when a generally positive product reviews takes pains to admit the product’s deficiencies).  Second, that your own position in a given situation may influence your level of certainty (for example, when you are the most senior person in the room, as opposed to when you are the most junior person in the room).

The HBR article then goes on to talk about four ways companies can boost certainty in their employee population, since certainty is a driver of behavior:

  1. Consensus – showing your view is widely shared (or shaping your view to perceptions)
  2. Repetition – having people express their own opinions repeatedly (encourage customers, employees, etc. to express positive opinions or opinions aligned with corporate goals)
  3. Ease – how easily an idea comes to mind (making good, regular visual use of key concepts)
  4. Defense – people are more certain after defending a position (being a devil’s advocate in an argument to get employees to defend their position)

My initial reaction to reading both Seth’s post and the HBR article was that if Certainty is nothing but an illusion, and yet it’s a key driver of behavior, then using Certainty by definition a manipulative management technique.  Say something’s true enough, get people to believe it, hope it’s right.  Or worse, get people to say it themselves enough so they believe their own inner monologues, not just yours.  But then I thought about the feedback that I get — that I deliver too many mixed messages — and changed my view. Coming across as certain, even when certainty may or may not be real, isn’t any more manipulative than any other management or even sales technique.  Our job as leaders is to generate inspiration and activity in our teams, isn’t it?  Using certainty isn’t by definition disingenuous, even if it’s an illusion at times.  It’s one thing to be All In, Until You’re Not, for example, and another thing entirely to publicly support a position that you know is false.  All we can do as leaders is to do our best.

Having said that, I think using certainty as a management tool is something leaders need to do judiciously given how powerful it is, and also given its fragility.  If business results are mixed, you can’t stand up in front of a room full of people and say things are great (or terrible), even if your people are seeking a black and white answer.  However, you can (and should) communicate your certainty that the direction you choose to take your team or your company is the right one.  And you can use transparency to further bolster your position.  Share the details of HOW you reached your decision with the people on your team.  After all, if you’re not certain, or if the logic that drove your certainty is flawed, why would anyone follow you?