Sophie Devonshire discusses why, in a rapidly changing, uncertain world, today’s business leaders need to accelerate performance innovatively and decisively.
This world is moving fast. Superfast. It’s not just the ‘consumer goods’ that are fast-moving these days; everything requires those leading in business to be more responsive. Technological change in business is partly responsible for this great acceleration, with platforms stacking on platforms, experiences becoming exponentially easier and disruption being contagious. High-profile organisations show us vertiginous growth –Uber going from nothing to $58bn valuation, Whatsapp to a billion users, both in only half a decade. This pace is exhilarating for many in business. Speed thrills. For others it’s sometimes just exhausting. Expectations are accelerating too and what goes up can also go down (fast). Organisations are disappearing out of the FTSE 100 at a faster rate than ever before and big name brands going under. Leaders of organisations are therefore constantly battling expectations around speed, from the hot-breath of their shareholders and investors, the pressure of the press and the ever-increasing impatience of customer expectations.
I’m fascinated by how leaders lead effectively in this world of accelerating speed. I’ve made it my mission to understand more about how business leaders deal with both pace and performance. As part of my research for Superfast: Lead at Speed, I’ve spent time with over 100 leaders including founders of hyper-growth start-ups and the captains of multibillion dollar global ‘supertankers’. One universal preoccupation for all of them is energy: how to nurture and maintain it in their people and themselves.
Why? Without energy nothing happens. No sparks, no fires, no movement, no momentum. And as we cannot ‘manage’ time, looking at energy instead is much more productive (time is finite, energy isn’t). Unilever’s former CEO Paul Polman: “I firmly believe that energy management is more important than time management.”
It’s a very popular modern moan: ‘I just don’t have enough time’. It’s fashionable to be busy. It’s so easy to be stressed about not having enough time. You will never have enough. It’s a fact. You cannot ask God or your boss for a 12-hour extension in the day. Work expands to fit the time available. Challenges and emails seem to breed like rabbits.
To make things happen, to revolutionise or reinvent a business: you need energy. When you are full of energy you get things done faster, make decisions at the right pace, and think more clearly. That clarity can then help you work out how to do less and achieve more. In the words of the nineteenth-century dynamic pioneer, undercover journalist, businesswoman, inventor and explorer Nellie Bly: “Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.” Here are 3 things I have learnt about energy in leading at speed…
Energy is your most precious asset
To move fast, don’t waste time thinking about time management, obsess instead about managing your energy. Know thyself and what energises you, what time you are at your best, how to handle fuel, sleep and exercise (so many Superfast leaders use exercise as their time to think and as a way to provide the resilience to deal with everyday challenges). Pause and rest, lie fallow from time to time to recharge.
Energy also comes from consciously doing less. Reduce the number of decisions made in a day to keep your brain fresh for the tough ones. The best piece of advice I ever received. ‘You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.’
Energy comes from the right people
Energy is so often about who you work with. Make a conscious decision to zap the energy vampires in your business – avoid working with them if you can. You may well have heard the expression ‘drains and radiators’. People can be radiators. They warm you up when you are around them. They make you feel comfortable and good. Other people can be drains – people who make you feel flat and deplete your battery as they take from you – ‘mood-hoovers’, who vacuum up your positivity or leech your optimism. Negative energy is a real threat to your day. It’s a real threat to organisation speed, too, as it slows down the desire to move.
To help your energy, think about spending more time with the people you know who act as a ‘tonic’ (friends, mentors, coaches, colleagues). Many leaders cite the business philosopher Jim Rohn, who asserts: “You are the average of the five people you spend most time with.” If you believe in the law of averages, then you believe in the theory that the result of any given situation will be the average of all outcomes. The law of averages means that the more energy there is around you the more you will have for yourself.
Seek out the ‘unblockers’ – one fast-moving FTSE 100 CEO I spoke to recently had a very deliberate hiring policy where she prioritised finding people with the ability to ‘unblock’, to remove the speedbumps that slow down progress. Hire slowly, fire fast. Set up a filter for the right type of people for your organisation to hire faster – a filter which includes driving diversity (sparks fly and inspiration ignites when your teams are mixed and have different perspectives). Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO asks two simple questions of new hires: “Do they provide energy and do they provide clarity?” Hire as well as you can and at a sensible pace but don’t rush to fill a gap. “Better a hole than an a***hole” says Dan Jacobs from Apple. Toxic hires will slow everything down.
Energy comes from a sense of purpose (and a sense of progress)
Set your North Star and your organisation’s purpose ‘the why’ to drive motivation and focus. If you want an organisation that moves and grows, you need motivation. The word ‘motivation’ has its roots in the Latin movere, meaning ‘to move’. Setting a purpose for the organisation helps provide corporations with a coherent identity, which insulates and supports people against uncertainty and change. A sense of purpose helps protect for the long term and it helps accelerate your organisation in the short term. At The Caffeine Partnership, we work with leaders to help them define, align and deliver a pragmatic and inspiring purpose for their organisation. The impact on energy can be incredible.
Purpose helps filter decision-making and inspire innovation. Move at pace and share the stories of progress to give that sense of momentum – success fosters belief and energy. And always aim for a high-velocity decision-making approach to energise and to accelerate. At Caffeine we make sure that everything we do with our clients generates more energy as a result. We take business very seriously but that doesn’t mean not making it fun and stimulating. Energy creates momentum and motivation. As the man who could be seen as one of the original architects of acceleration in business Jeff Bezos puts it: “Speed matters in business, and a high-velocity decision-making environment is more fun too”.
The world won’t slow down. We’ll need energy to keep up. And we might as well find ways to enjoy the ride.