An Unconventional, Informal, and Highly Inclusive Executive Decision-Making Method

Zola, the New York City-based wedding-planning and registry company founded in 2013, has a go-to method for hearing out a diversity of viewpoints in its large majority-women management team. There is no majority rule, and it is not democratic, but there are multiple rounds of voting among the team.

It has never been easy to read a room, especially via Zoom. When it comes to high-level decisions, extroverts tend to dominate discussions. The people with minority opinions might feel defensive or, worse, silenced. Sometimes it is impossible to build a consensus and building unity without unanimity of opinion is also a challenge.
The decision-making system at Zola evolved over the past five years, and although it may be somewhat unusual, it has become a defining one for the majority-women-led company, which has more than 200 employees.

The idea is to make sure that topics are looked at from all angles, and to make sure that no one person dominates the discussion. This ensures that introverts on the leadership team are also heard. Extroverts sometimes have to be cognizant of allowing others to speak.

Surprising Results from Inclusive Meetings

Five years ago, after a leadership retreat the executive team saw particular success in collecting a diversity of opinions using an anonymous Post-it note system and the combination of debate and polling yields surprising results.”
The process itself is nameless, and casually known as “taking a vote.” As a system, it informs the decision-making process, helps consensus surface, and keeps the team more glued together in supporting decisions.
This is how it works… When faced with an important decision, any department head could propose a vote during the weekly department-head meeting. That executive would then present their issue to the group of 20 other vice presidents and department heads.

Next, everyone at the meeting is then presented between two to four options on which they can vote. Sometimes, it’s anonymous, a process formerly done on Post-its (this year via Zoom’s polling function). Next, a vigorous debate exploring the rationales behind individuals’ votes–and this step is key. Finger-pointing and politics are banned. A specific amount of time is spent exploring outlying opinions, and also making sure everyone with a minority opinion has uninterrupted time to speak. After this, another vote is cast.

The decision-maker is not required to take the majority’s recommendation as the company is not set up as a democracy. The process is about giving the decision-maker the information to make a better informed decision, and to know that time was taken to understand every perspective.

Informing the High-Stakes Decisions

The company has found this process useful in decisions monumental to its future path. Votes take place roughly every six weeks. The most significant of recent years was almost immediately after the office shut down in-person operations in March of 2020 when the pandemic started. It quickly became obvious that some of the company’s investments might be dramatically affected by the pandemic. The vote was complicated as there were multiple departments and products at stake.

A year later, Zola has begun hiring again as the pent-up demand from delaying large gatherings is surging business.
The decision-debate framework has given the executive team at Zola a sense of balance. It allows the voices of quieter, more introspective team members to be heard. It is also very efficient as polling very rapidly highlights whether an issue is contentious or is worth spending time debating.

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