Fast. Does that word resonate with the way your world moves around you? Especially after a year that has raced by even faster than the last one. If you’re 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, at the beginning of another new year, with new resolutions or finally the resolve to really ‘get that thing done this time’. Well, here’s a tip. If you want to lead at speed, learn from leaders who have learnt to do it. We interviewed 100 of them for Superfast: Lead at Speed. These 100 leaders included the fast disruptors (such as Google), rapid reactors and permanent pacesetters (such as Unilever). We’ve learnt a lot from listening to them. One big thing we’ve learnt is the importance of focus. Set fewer priorities and get them done. Or quickly change priorities when it’s clear that they’re not taking you in the right direction.
“You’ll get further faster if you present a branded idea. A story that excites people will attract money”
In that spirit of focus, here are the 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 to it.
Brands matter to any business. They help to drive value, maintain 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 consumers 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 tongue at all times. You need to stand out and occupy that precious real estate 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 embedded. It’s the ultimate accelerant because it moves across the mind.
It doesn’t matter what stage of the business lifecycle you are at. If you are starting up a business, you’ll get further faster if you present a branded idea. A story that excites people will attract money. And if your business is growing, now’s the time to make sure your brand is working hard to ensure consistency, relevance and distinctiveness as you expand.
Brands help to accelerate decision-making. Ask constantly: Is this good for our brand? Is this what our brand should do? It’s a great way of fast-tracking conversations on what matters most to customers and employees.
“Brands remain the fastest way to accelerate growth. Brands help you set velocity because they are a shorthand for what your business stands for and the value people ascribe to it.”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’re 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 – 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 brake as much as it needs an accelerator. But urgently remove anyone whose energy toxifies the culture or needlessly hampers progress – even if this causes you a ‘speedbump’ in terms of resource or recruitment. “Better a hole in your business that an a**hole in your business” is a mantra of the speediest leaders.
“What is the difference you’re seeking to make in the lives of customers and consumers? Why is it good to be part of what you do?”
And don’t confuse 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 workhorses get 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 are a leader, then do less. Listen more, talk more, delegate more. But do 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 businesses. 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 assessing the continuous and evolving performance of an all-pervasive concept such as 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.
This article was originally published in British Airways Business Life Magazine, December 2018/January 2019.
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