In 2013, a little over five years after it had a seemingly unassailable lead in the global smartphone market, Nokia’s share had completely collapsed and the company sold to Microsoft. It’s not alone. Between 2006 and 2014 almost 40 of the S&P 100 companies had dropped out of the list, and nearly 20 of them had completely lost their independence.
Nothing lasts forever, and if some of the world’s biggest companies can decline so rapidly, then no company is safe. It is only those organizations that act with speed and agility that have a chance of surviving and thriving.
At its heart, pace is a leadership issue. As part of the research for my book, First & Fast, I identified seven behaviours that fast-paced leaders demonstrated that enabled their businesses to accelerate, succeed and grow.
- Set high-speed expectations. When Richard Baker became the chief executive of Boots the Chemists, the UK’s largest drugstore chain (and now part of Walgreens Boots Alliance) in 2003, he immediately sent a memo to his fellow executive directors, setting out the behaviours he expected of them. Speed was central to his message. As he wrote, “We set the pace. No one in the company will work faster than we do. We will make decisions, not defer them. We will encourage brevity and simplicity. Complexity is the enemy of pace; less is more.” Baker’s executive team quickly realized that he meant what he said, and soon the rest of the organization raised their game in working at pace.
- Ensure strategic focus. The Japanese have a saying that ‘you can’t chase two hares.’ If a dog chases one hare it probably has a 20% chance of catching it, but if tries to catch two that probability quickly drops to nil. It’s the same with strategic priorities. The fewer priorities you have the more chance you have of reaching your goals rapidly. Your people understand what’s required more easily, it is easier to build organizational alignment and engagement and there is less competition for critical internal resources.
- Build a lean organization. Walk around most corporate offices and you see rows of people tapping away at their PC, responding to emails. The problem is that these people aren’t necessarily adding to growth. It’s the same in meetings. The more people that attend, the longer it takes to decide. All things being equal, the fewer people in your organization, the greater the improvement to its pace and energy.
- Destroy functional silos. No structure is perfect, and wherever structural boundaries exist silos are possible. Your job as a leader is to counter-balance your structural weaknesses with a culture that kills these silos at the source. There are many actions you can take, including the creation of common goals and incentives, rewarding cross-functional behaviours and developing cross-functional career paths, but the most important place to start is in the executive suite, ensuring that the leadership ‘team’ really is a team. Fast-paced leaders take the time to carefully first select those people that will genuinely work together, rather than alone, and then to build the trust across groups that is essential to building the organization’s speed, agility and growth.
- Communicate continuously. As with advertising, it’s not the one-off piece of communication that makes the difference to your leadership message, but its ongoing beat. Fast-paced leaders make the time and effort to communicate with their organization continuously, in any way they can. That means ‘town hall meetings’, memos and small meeting conversations, as well as set-piece conferences. What’s more, these leaders use stories of success from around the business to highlight their message. When Stuart Rose became CEO of M&S, the UK retailer, for example, he repeatedly told his people how one of the buyers had managed to brief, source and sell new espadrille shoes in a little over a week, as a way of highlighting the need for speed.
- Demand and encourage rapid action. Stuart Rose was encouraging M&S managers and staff to act faster. Over time, the demand for rapid action can be embedded in the DNA of your organization’s culture. As Michael Bloomberg put it in his book, Bloomberg by Bloomberg, “We act from day one. Others plan how to plan – for months!” The other side of action, of course, is the removal of your people’s fear of failure. Only then will they build, test and review the series of imperfect prototype solutions that will be necessary to quickly discover a better new product, process or solution.
- Develop a discipline of regular, rapid reviews. There is no pace without accountability. In every fast-paced company I know, there are clear accountabilities and, equally importantly, a discipline of regular review. Amazon, for instance, runs a weekly senior leadership team meeting to review progress on their most important projects. At one UK retailer I know, the CEO and his top team met in one of the stores each Monday at 6.00 am to review the latest in-store innovations. This discipline of reviewing progress on your key projects weekly can have a transformative effect on the speed and quality of implementation. Managers feel accountable and more committed if they know they’re going to be asked what’s happened in the last seven days – but only if there is a genuine environment of collective support, rather than the feeling of a court appearance.
Which of these 7 behaviours could you adopt to step-change the pace and agility of your organization?