There is a saying, “It takes two to tango.” That is true in many areas of life, and it happens to be true about an important dimension of leadership — speed. But that speed is not effective unless it is accompanied by a second dimension — quality.
Consider the following data to paint a more precise picture. In a study of more than 51,000 leaders, Zenger Folkman examined two dimensions: the leader’s ability to do things fast and the leader’s ability to do things right.
Leaders who were effective at doing things fast (above the 75th percentile) but not highly effective at doing things right (below the 75th percentile), had a 2 percent probability of being an extraordinary leader, defined as being in the top 10 percent of leaders.
On the other hand, leaders who were rated highly at doing things right (above 75th percentile), but not doing things fast (below 75th percentile), were nearly the same. This group had a 3 percent probability of being an extraordinary leader. However, those leaders rated highly at doing thing both fast and right had a 96 percent probability of being an extraordinary leader.
However, these two elements are not cut from the same cloth. Quality needs to exist to a certain level. Once that standard is met, there is usually no payoff in constantly improving quality. For example, if an automotive plant is stamping out door panels, and each panel meets the standard for measurement, contour and lack of surface blemishes, further quality emphasis does not produce greater value. Speed, on the other hand, is different. It has the potential for nearly limitless improvement. As long as the plant maintains quality, producing door panels at a faster rate does indeed create greater value.
Applying this principle to leadership behavior is not difficult. If a leader moves at an extremely rapid pace to get things done, but is sloppy or makes subpar decisions, that leader creates little value. Speed alone is of little advantage. Work must be accurate.
However, leaders who execute, respond and make decisions quickly and correctly will be perceived as more effective leaders than those who do not. In contrast, the leader who makes sound decisions, but who moves at a plodding pace, may create some value. But that level of value creation is far below a comparable leader in the same role who makes decisions, takes initiative, reacts to customers and drives better work processes at a brisk, ever increasing pace.
There are three proven pathways to increase speed while not losing sight of quality.
- Possess knowledge and expertise. There is a significant correlation between a leader’s ability to move quickly and their knowledge and expertise. Knowledge enables a person to move faster. When someone doesn’t know something, he or she will often slow down. Leaders who are the most successful are persistent students. To improve knowledge, start by identifying knowledge gaps. Then recruit mentors. Seek out stretch job assignments that force learning. Encourage leaders to learn from team members as well.
- Communicate powerfully. In business, many precious hours are wasted due to ineffective communication. When team members are well informed, they can execute faster. When messages are reinforced, they are remembered. Good communication is not going in one direction. When leaders take time to listen to others and ask intelligent questions, they understand other’s concerns and perspectives on how things could be done better. Communicating powerfully starts with telling more, asking more, and listening more. By improving the communication quality one naturally improves both work speed and quality.
- Take initiative. When leaders take initiative, they take ownership in a task. Individuals who initiate action usually can be counted on to follow through. Usually they are willing to go the proverbial extra mile. On the other hand, our research showed those who are not as effective at initiating action tend to not follow through on all of their commitments. They were inclined to hold back and take a slower pace. Excuses like “I was busy with other things” or “It was not my top priority” were frequently heard as justification for their failure to deliver good work in a timely manner. To improve leadership speed, individuals must be encouraged to take the driver’s seat instead of sitting in the back.
Speed can affect all aspects of life. But for those individuals tired of feeling like they are 10 steps behind, there is a way to catch up. As leaders work to increase their speed, keep an eye on speed’s partner, quality. It does take two to tango.
Jack Zenger is the CEO of Zenger Folkman, a strengths-based leadership development firm. To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.com.
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