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Speed Thrills — How Leaders Can Impact Performance in a Fast-paced World

Jason Diamond Arnold

March 25, 2021

The iconic ’80s leadership guru Ferris Bueller once said, “Life moves pretty fast.” Imagine what Bueller could have done through Zoom class in 2021. *If you don’t get the Bueller reference, it’s well worth the $2.99 spend on Amazon Prime. 

Since Buller was dodging principals and parents (I’d like to think it was not that long ago), we have rapidly evolved into a digital world that streams ideas, disseminates information, produces data, and generates noise at a pace no human being will ever be able to manage, control, or fully comprehend, even if your name is Bueller.

But accessing and participating in this rapid flow of information comes with potential consequences for individuals and businesses. 

A CEO who reactively posts a tweet on Friday may be escorted out the door on Monday. A freak storm could disrupt global supply chains overnight. A trading frenzy in China could liquidate financial services providers by morning in the United States. A virus could shut down a global economy before someone can get to the store to buy toilet paper. 

Entire businesses' models have been impacted and flipped upside down in a matter of days, or even hours this past year, compared with what may have taken weeks or months to develop back in the pre #saveferris days.  

McKinsey referred to this speed phenomenon in a recent report on rebalancing global value chains, stating, “Changes in the environment and in the global economy are increasing the frequency and magnitude of shocks.” Due to the surprising and often painful effects of these environmental and economic changes, “shocks”  are the new norm of disruptive impacts on leaders and their businesses. 

In a 2019 HBR article, “Avoiding Disruption Requires Rapid Decision Making,” the authors introduce us to the U.S. Air Force Col. John Boyd, who explained why American fighter pilots had a far higher “kill ratio” (10:1) than opponents in the Korean War. Boyd identified pilot training, the innate abilities of each pilot, and the jets themselves as key factors in this ratio. He saluted the technical advantages of the jet, combined with the skills the pilots developed during training, which allowed them to “react to the enemy’s maneuvers at a much faster rate than their opponents, causing enemy fighters to become confused, then under- or over-reacting as the fight progressed. They eventually lost the ability to control the situation.” Boyd summarized his findings by saying that: “He (and she) who can handle the quickest rate of change survives.” 

Leaders in 2021 need to be committed to continually developing new skills and acquiring new knowledge to quickly adapt to any “shock” to the business environment. It was fascinating to see how different leaders responded differently when the pandemic began to shut everything down in the early spring of 2020. Popular clothing brands almost immediately pivoted from making clothes to mass-producing masks (with their logos) to close the gap and a shortage of masks early in the outbreak. The pivot helped the greater community while giving them a new business model that didn’t exist in February of 2020.

Leadership Today Is Harder Than Ever

With all these ongoing environmental shocks and disruptions, leaders and businesses are expected to be ready to shift or pivot at any moment, requiring the continuous adapting, adjusting, and reorientation of operations and responsibilities in the flow of work.

In a recent MIT Sloan research report, several C-suite leaders were interviewed about how digital workforces expect digital transformation from its leaders. Anheuser-Busch (AB InBev) CEO Carlos Brito shares his observations: “I’ve been CEO for 15 years, and the initial part of my time as CEO was much easier because it was purely about the business,” he says. “You had to deal with your consumers, with your retailers. But now it’s broader — it’s about sustainability, it’s about race, it’s about inequality, it’s about politics. It’s everything.”

Responding to “Everything” is a lot for leaders to take on. It’s an imposing additional strain on leader performance and requires a new mindset and while continually upgrading skills. 

4 Traits Leaders Need Today

So, with ever-changing markets and continuous unpredictable shocks to businesses, what can leaders do when it comes to making quick course corrections to their business strategy and objectives?

To be a successful leader in today’s fast-paced business environment, leaders must take on several change agents to effectively influence others: 

1. Be digitally savvy.

In the Sloan report mentioned above, “respondents overwhelmingly agreed that successful leadership performance is contingent upon digital competence, and a full 88% stated that having a critical mass of digitally savvy leaders matters, to a great or moderate extent, to their organization’s ability to win in the future.” At the same time, those same respondents did not “perceive that their organizations (were) committed to professional development around digital capabilities — for managers and leaders.”

Therefore, the first trait for leaders who want to improve performance for themselves, their businesses, and their employees in a disruptive world is to do whatever’s necessary to not only become digitally savvy but to exemplify that proficiency with their workforce. That will often look like investing in and adopting software tools to help impact performance in practical ways.

2. Be risk-takers. 

Along with being digitally savvy, leaders must also be adaptive and open to innovation and change, or else they’ll not be prepared for disruption when it comes. And it will come. 

IBM CEO Arvind Krishna speaking on leadership in 2021 said: “Since I became CEO, I’ve talked at great length about the importance of culture and the need to instill a growth and entrepreneurial mindset. As part of that, we are encouraging more business risk-taking and ensuring a higher tolerance for failure across the business. This should allow us to more quickly respond to clients, seize more opportunities, and drive better business outcomes.”

The problem is that human beings like the comfort zone. We like neatly packaged products and solutions that we can sell over and over again, a proven business model that has been successfully followed for decades. However, because of the technological advances and innovation in just the last decade alone, if we only do what we’ve always done, we will be left behind and disrupted. Being an agile or adaptive leader is no longer an option to survive — it is required. 

3. Be technologically streamlined.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. There are a lot of technologies and tools that you can buy and roll out in your company. But digital savvy doesn’t mean more; it means using the right digital tools to get the job done. It also means streamlining your technology tools as much as possible so that your employees can do their work more efficiently. With technology, less is more, and with people, quality of work life is essential. This sentiment is well captured by the Sloan researchers: “Leaders must rethink how digital tools, techniques, and technologies make people feel more valued even as they become more valuable.” 

4. Be data-intelligent. 

Both leaders and organizations need to not only have relevant data to draw from but also know how best to use that data to inform changes and gain leadership insights and market advantages. Being data-intelligent isn’t about producing or accessing data just to say you have data; it’s about being smart about what data you’re looking at and using it to make decisions and having better conversations with the people you’re leading. 

With robust reporting, you’ll be able to review your progress, integrate other business data you’re tracking, and accelerate your total results in real time. 

Harness the Power of Performance Technology

Being a leader has never been more challenging than it is today. However, along with all of the challenges of working in a digital world come opportunities to learn how to harness and streamline the very same digital tools to work for your company’s and employees’ benefit. To perform well in this new world, leaders will need to be digitally savvy risk-takers who streamline technology with strong data. And by virtue of the fast-paced world we’re living in, expect to add additional leadership competencies, skills, and traits to this list frequently. It’s time to be intentional about how you use technology to make you more savvy and effective as a leader. Or in the wise words of the Bueler character: “If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

If you need help understanding how performance management in 2021 will affect your organization, let’s talk.