Fast. Does that word resonate with the way your world moves around you? 2018 is at a close and has raced by even faster than the last one. If you are a leader, are you hurrying along your 100-day plan? Or have you been in the role for some time and frankly wondered where those days, months or years have gone, and what progress has been made?
Here we are, kicking off another new year, making new year resolutions, or finally resolving to really 'get that thing done' this time around. Well, here’s a tip. If you want to lead at speed, learn from leaders who have learnt to do it. These leaders include the fast disrupters (such as Google), rapid reactors and permanent pacesetters (such as Unilever). You can learn a lot from listening to them. One thing we have learnt is the importance of focus. Set fewer priorities and get them done. Or quickly change priorities when it’s clear that they are not taking you in the right direction. In that spirit of focus here are three things you should prioritise in 2019.
First, focus on building a brand. Brands remain the fastest way to accelerate growth. Brands help you set velocity (which is speed in the right direction) because they are a shorthand for what your business stands for and the value people ascribe for it. Brands matter to any business. They help to drive value, maintain a competitive advantage and are highly protectable. Brands help businesses connect with and retain customers. And customers are the lifeblood of any business.
It doesn’t matter which sector you are in. Whether you are a business that sells to other businesses or to a consumer or through other businesses to consumers, you have competition and you will face changing market dynamics. You need to be top of mind and tip of the tongue at all times. You need to stand out and occupy that precious real estate that is that is the space in your customer’s memory reserved for ‘the type of things you do’. They need to have a clear, instantly recallable idea of exactly who you are and why you are relevant to them.
A brand moves faster than you can get your supply chain to deliver, your new product to be launched, your change initiative conversations on what matters most to customers and employees.
So, as a leader, take time to pause now and ask yourself and your senior colleagues: “Are we absolutely clear what our brand or brands stand for?” Because if you aren’t, your people won’t be and nor, ultimately, will the people who really matter be, the ones who give you money - customers. And nothing slows you down more quickly than lack of money.
You need to articulate it in a credible and compelling way, based on past associations, current reality and future aspirations. It needs to be appealing to employees, customers and potential partners. It also needs to be clear and differentiated. Avoid wishy-washy words that are forgettable. Strike out ‘quality’, ‘trust’ and, above all ‘passion’ - everyone uses them and they are so bland, few even believe them. What does your organisation do to help people? What is the difference you are seeking to make in the lives of customers and consumers? Why is it good to be part of what you do? How do you define this in a memorable and compelling way? Your response needs to be authentic, based on the truth about what you do and why it matters.
Clarity of brand also helps companies to make better investment decisions for products and customer experiences, including what kind of innovations to bring to market. For example, Unilever’s brand purpose influenced its decision to develop a groundbreaking “Superfast’ soap that cleans hands in ten seconds and not the usual 30 seconds - reducing the water needed to wash hands and thereby improving the chances of children in developing countries living beyond six years old.
Second, focus on setting the right pace and energy for your people and yourself. People worry about managing time. Don’t. Instead concern yourself with energy. Surround yourself with people who have positive energy, and ensure your colleagues do the same. That does not mean people who unquestioningly obey your every command. You need critical friends with radical candour who will ensure you are heading in the right direction (remember ‘velocity’ is preferable to ‘speed’). Every car needs a break as much as it needs an accelerator. But urgently remove anyone whose energy toxifies the culture of needlessly hampers progress - even if this causes you a ‘speed bump’ in terms of resource and recruitment.
And don’t consume effort with energy. People too often value input more than output, which is crazy. It doesn’t matter how many hours you put in, or how much hard work you expend if it produces nothing. You’ll often hear people say: “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.” Actually, all that means is that the same willing workhorse gets flogged. Bill Gates has a different approach. He says if you want to get something done fast, find a lazy person. They’ll work out how to get it done with the minimal amount of input. Use experts who can give you shortcuts, not hard workers who can show you their time sheets. And manage your own energy. This may sound counterintuitive but, if you’re a leader then do less. Listen more, talk more, delegate more. But d less. You’re a leader, not a manager.
Spend more time ensuring the people in your business are engaged in and enjoy what they do, that they get your vision for the business, that they want to spend their energy productively in the extra efforts required to deliver something that genuinely delights customers and gets them talking about your brand. Remember the three I’s of engagement: inform them, inspire them and enable them to integrate the vision, values and strategy into their daily work.
Third, focus on the right measures. You need measures that are fit for this rapidly adapting world and that fit something which is at once as constant, and yet as constantly changing as a brand.
An article in a recent MIT Sloan Management Review criticised the established approach to goal setting by leaders in business. According to conventional wisdom, goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound (branded SMART, by the way). But SMART goals undervalue ambition, focus narrowly on individual performance, and ignore the importance of discussing goals throughout the year.
To drive strategy execution, leaders should instead set goals that are frequently discussed, ambitious, specific and transparent. These are the kind of goals that are much more suited to accessing the continuous and evolving performance of an all-pervasive concept such as a brand.
The quick-witted readers of this article will have noticed that these kinds of goals make a handy acronym too: FAST. Have a happy, focused and fast 2019.