Leadership & the need for speed

Be fast to be seen as a great leader

It’s obvious that business is moving faster and faster, and that to keep up, leaders at all levels need to know how to pick up the pace.

That’s easy to say. But is it so? Is there a correlation between speed and perceived leadership effectiveness?

In a word, yes.

We recently analyzed 360 feedback evaluations on more than 50,000 leaders to assess the impact of speed on their colleagues’ impression of each executive’s overall leadership effectiveness. For this purpose, we created a “speed index” that measured speed in three simple ways: how well a leader can spot problems or trends early, can respond to problems quickly and can swiftly make needed changes. We then looked to see how high scores on the speed index correlated to overall leadership effectiveness ratings by focusing on the exceptional leaders in the pool (those rated in the top 10% in leadership effectiveness by their colleagues).

What we found was that of these 5,711 top leaders, 2% were judged particularly fast but not exceptionally effective (that’s about 114 of them); 3% (some 170) were judged to be highly effective (that is, people trusted them to do the right thing) but not particularly fast. And fully 95% (that’s more than 5,400 of them) were judged both particularly effective and particularly quick. That is, being good is only marginally better than being quick, but the fact is both are necessary, and neither alone is sufficient, to be perceived as an exceptional leader today.

So what makes a leader both fast and good? Here are the top five factors, listed in descending order.

1. People who work with them trust their ability to use good judgment and make effective decisions. Without trust, colleagues resist moving fast (or at all). And there’s no mystery in how that trust is built: Experienced leaders earn trust through a track record of success built through strong positive relationships and demonstrated expertise.

2. They make their vision and strategy absolutely clear to their colleagues. When people can see the context for action, they can more quickly understand and carry out their part in an enterprise. It’s not hard to move fast when everyone is clear about where you’re going and, equally important, where you’re not going.

3. They demonstrate personal courage. Acting with speed often feels risky. The person looking to avoid added personal exposure will be inclined to move slowly. In general, people are more comfortable working at a steady pace. It takes a great deal of courage to move faster and ask others to move fast with you.

4. They assemble world-class expertise and knowledge. When leaders lack expertise they have to stop and do their homework. Lacking knowledge leaves you in uncharted waters where your inclination is to be slow and careful. Conversely, having or accessing world-class expertise allows you to work faster and make better decisions.

5. They set stretch goals. Easy goals allow people time to reach them in a leisurely way. Stretch goals reinforce the need for speed. They encourage people to get on with their work rather than ponder.

(Jack Zenger is the CEO of Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy. Joseph Folkman is the president of Zenger/Folkman.)

© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate