Leading a Change of Pace: Moving Faster When Your Firm is On the Clock

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Every business operates at its own unique cadence, determined in large part by the pace of change in the markets it competes in and the customers it serves. When something in the industry shifts and the firm is suddenly racing the clock for success or survival, leaders need to move carefully to avoid tripping all over themselves and slowing things down in their drive to get everyone to move faster.


Industry Dynamics Set the Pace Until a Shock Demands More Speed:

The high technology and software businesses I have worked in and led operated at a pretty consistent high-speed. The old cliché, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” could not have been more wrong for those environments. It was an all-out sprint from quarter-to-quarter and project-to-project. We were perpetually operating somewhere between greatness and disaster with the latter seemingly only a missed release date or a missed competitive opportunity away. Nonetheless, it was not until one of those firms faced an existential crisis that the organization found another gear and a healthy amount of much needed additional speed.

The pace in software was fun, exhilarating, and occasionally exhausting. However, it was part of the culture. People chose to be part of this lifestyle and our leaders and project managers all operated with an unyielding sense of, “we have to move faster.” They practiced what they preached and they exhibited the core company values in every action.

In this environment, the movement from fast to faster was fairly easy to deal with.

In contrast, when a plodding industrial manufacturing giant faced its own crisis—a need to counter a potentially disruptive technology from a competitor—the sudden need for speed was met with a cultural grinding of the gears.

Leadership preached speed and the culture groaned. It took a wholesale transfusion of new leadership accustomed to the balancing act between the need for speed and the unyielding need to make their employees the locomotive force behind the new pace. 

Eight Lessons Learned in Leading Teams and Firms to Pick Up the Pace:

1. Be careful with your message. The sudden need for more speed sounds like a bad cliché to employees accustomed to the traditional pace of their industry. It is met with reactions ranging from incredulity to outright cynicism and cannot be dished out by executives like some form of real-life motivational poster.

2. Context is still key. In fact, context is everything when attempting to gain buy-in to why the traditional pace and approach(es) no longer apply. The messaging must be anchored in marketplace and customer realities. One firm’s leaders organized cross-functional teams to explore the changing industry, competitor and customer dynamics and the employees became the advocates and cheerleaders for speed and change.

3. Never ignore the informal organization structure. Change happens in organizations when the influencers and power brokers on the informal organization chart say it will.

Smart leaders recognize the power of this shadow structure and work hard to identify and engage the influencers early in the process.

4. The values are non-negotiable. Speed cannot translate to sacrificing core values. At the same time leaders are working to offer context for the need for change, they must be exhibiting and reinforcing core values of the culture every single day. If respect is the top line on the values chart, the need for speed cannot involve a shift to inappropriate impatience which might be interpreted as rudeness. The values cannot be compromised under any circumstances.

5. In spite of #4 above, the values can be augmented. One senior management group sensitive to the need for speed and change in their culture without rocking the core values was momentarily stymied when nothing about the values promoted urgency.

They asked the employees for help and the employees added a value on the urgency in a dynamically changing environment. It turns out, there were many great examples the employees could cite that brought this unarticulated value to life. Instead of imposing this value from the top down it was added in grass roots fashion and quickly accepted as a part of the working culture in the firm.

6. Leaders must be careful navigating between urgency and empathy. It is easy and wrong for the need for speed to push the human issues required for leading effectively into the background. Leaders who operate with their hair metaphorically on fire all of the time and who fail to take the time to engage, coach and develop their team members are going to be ineffective in this or any situation. In fact, now more than ever in a time of change, leaders must pay attention to the soft issues as part of guiding their teams to promote and accept change.

7. Creating opportunities to call a time-out and let people breathe is essential to success. From occasional afternoon gatherings complete with beverages and snacks to a surprise day at a local country club to contests, races, fundraisers and community service days, it is essential to find opportunities to let your hard working team members catch their breath.

8. The lessons on managing change from the management books all apply:

  • People want to be part of creating something great!
  • People do their best work when they have context for how it fits in the bigger picture.
  • Constant communication is key to gaining support and building speed.
  • People appreciate exposure to new opportunities that both challenge and reward them.
  • If you are encouraging experimentation in pursuit of innovation, you must ensure that when the experiment flops, the only issue that matters is reflecting on what was learned and improving with the next experiment.
  • There is no success too small to be celebrated. The small wins turn into bigger wins over time.
  • Some people never make this transition. If the culture has to change, then some people will have to go.

The Bottom Line:

We live and work in a world where time compression is a fact of life. From the pace of technological change to a myriad of unprecedented forces converging to drive change in our industries and organizations, everyone and every firm is engaged in a race for survival or at least a race for success. Guiding a change in the traditional pace and speed of a firm is just another challenging task on the long list of responsibilities for anyone serving as a leader in this world.