The Traits of Leaders Who Do Things Fast and Wellby Zenger Folkman November 17, 2016
An exceptional leader we know would occasionally get a question from his direct reports in a variety of forms but with the common message, “Do you want this done fast or right?” His answer was always the same: “Yes!” He chose not to compromise on either dimension. For this leader and for most highly effective leaders we know, making mistakes is not an option. But neither is slowing down.
Over the last few years we’ve been increasingly interested in the impact of a leader’s preference for speed versus a “slow and steady” mode of operation. It’s clear that overall, organizational processes, communications, and human interactions in the world are speeding up. Many organizations are looking for ways to become more agile. Perhaps leaders worry that their organizations cannot move faster if their employees operate slowly.
We created an assessment to measure an individual’s preference for moving at a slow or fast pace. In the assessment, we also measured preference for quality versus quantity. After gathering data on more than 5,000 leaders across the globe, we discovered a strong tendency for those with a fast pace to also have a strong preference toward quantity rather than quality of work. Fifty-eight percent of respondents have this preference. We also noticed that 19% had a stronger quality focus and a slower pace. This group was concerned that working faster could create errors or mistakes. Their tendency was to slow down in order to maintain high quality. (If you would like to evaluate your own pace and see how you compare, you can take it here. It’s free but we ask for your email address.)
We meet many groups that, when challenged to work faster, worry doing so will cause errors and poor quality. The group we were interested in for this research, however, was the people who preferred a faster pace but also had a quality focus. Is this really possible? And what does it take for a leader to have both high quality and fast pace?
To research this question, we turned to another data set, one that includes information on more than 75,000 leaders. This data set contained 360-degree assessments with ratings from an average of 13 raters. In the dataset we measured a leader’s speed and their quality of output. We identified a group of leaders who were in the top quartile on both speed and quality and compared this group to all other leaders in the database. We computed statistical tests on 49 leadership behaviors. We sought to identify the most differentiating behaviors of leaders who were rated as having high levels of both speed and quality. What did they do differently from other leaders? All of the 49 behaviors were statistically significant, so we were searching for those that differentiated most powerfully.
The analysis identified seven unique factors that appear to identify what it takes to combine these two seemingly contradictory critical leadership goals. Continued on Harvard Business Review.