From Above




We live in a world where speed is such a virtue, hey. We need to answer messages immediately, deliver content quicker than ever before. How quick the processor is, how a guy ran a marathon in under 2 hours. In sport (and rugby is my chosen metaphor) we tend to put the quick flashy winger that scores the tries on a pedestal, while the hard-working forward gets less glory. We celebrate decisive leadership, and the papers are filled with critics of our leaders, and how they are not doing enough quickly enough.

Speed. When I started PG Tops, I quickly decided responsiveness would be our defining feature. We would be able to react quickly to requests, changes and opportunities. I kept same to my team as we grew: “Either you’re big and strong, or small and quick.” I believed speed would be our competitive advantage, and I would often wake up in the middle of the night, see an email had come in, and answer it, congratulating myself on being 8 hours ahead of my competition.

And there’s merit to this right. The competitive landscape is tougher. The world wants you to react quickly. But is what the world wants always best for the world, and for you?

I’m going to tell you three stories that, together, are shaping my thinking on this, and a particular area where speed kills, as opposed to being an absolute virtue: Leadership.

Story #1: Years ago, studying in the States, I had a mentor (Dave Sell) who was a highly accomplished guy. In an illustrious corporate career, he was Mr. Fixit. And whenever they sent him to an underperforming division in whichever multinational he was working for at the time (Burger King among others), he would put a picture on the wall of what looked like a dog. Massive ears, massive eyes…can hardly see the mouth. He called this sketch BEBEMS. Ask me what it stands for? Big Ears Big Eyes Mouth Small. I.e. the secret to success: For the first three months on the job, do nothing. Observe. Diagnose. Understand. LISTEN. Then, once you have the full picture, get to work.

Right. I loved this story, onboarded it – then promptly forgot about it four years later when I got my first big promotion into an executive position. Within 2 weeks I was making personnel changes, advancing people and making changes. Why? Because I felt so much pressure to be immediately seen as being of value, of being decisive, of being quick. And you know what? I made a lot of mistakes, especially around people. Didn’t understand the history, the dynamic, the consequences. And I didn’t last, I was gone within 18 months.

Harvard Business Review: “Experienced leaders, who may feel certain they already know the correct moves to make, instead need to listen, observe, and suspend judgment. This is especially challenging because others around you may be expecting quick action. One CFO I worked with restrained his urge to make immediate changes by taking notes about what he was learning in the early days of his tenure and recording some early conclusions. As he reflected on his notes later, he was able to see that he had initially held an incorrect assumption about his colleagues. Discovering this blind spot proved vital to his ability to lead a pivotal change later on.”

It is said of George Washington, the great American President, that he was slow to decide, firm in decision, and rare to second-guess.

Ok so yeah. Gather the facts. Have some discipline. And focus on one thing to do instead of taking on too many projects (this according to above Harvard article).

But how?

Dave gave me that BEBEMS advice years and years ago – but no roadmap on how to execute when I got there.

Story #2, next week, will be about how I decided to tackle the problem.

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