Lead fast, lead slow?

I admit – I do enjoy reading (or skimming) management books. In my career, a few have been very helpful. Many are useful, helping to re-invigorate and focus as attention and time can be diverted by the mundane tasks of day to day operations. I also enjoy the new ideas, and new takes on the challenges of running a business. What intrigues me on a personal level is the seeming divergence of opinion on how a new leader should start a new job: move fast, or take time and move more judiciously? Are these distinct? How does the new leader know how to proceed? The run-up to President Obama taking office, from the day of his election until now is the most current example of moving fast. He entered office with a myriad of problems, the most pressing, of course, being an economy that was a mess. When George Bush entered office in January, 2001, there was no such sense of urgency. Bush also entered office without the clear support of the "owners" – the general public. In that situation, his better approach was to move more slowly. That was, of course, until the attacks on September 11. Bush then moved quickly, initiating a number of actions, from the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the so-called "Patriot Act", and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. With this sense of urgency, he had the political capital and support to move quickly and implement his ideas and plans. When President Clinton took office in 1992, one of the first high profile moves was to develop a comprehensive, large scale restructuring of the health care industry. The move failed. I wonder whether a big reason for the failure was that there was not broad agreement that there was a sense of urgency to act. Come 2009, however, there is a sense of some urgency, AND the issue has been percolating for some time as individual states, led by Massachusetts, have been taking action. We are likely to see healthcare taken up in the next two years, as it is viewed as a critical issue, and that the cost of insurance and services is seen as an economic issue as well. If you are new in a leadership position, I would ask your superiors directly: what are the key issues, and what is the sense of urgency? It takes time to learn a new job – I have long contended that it takes at least six, full months. An insider can move faster than someone from the outside, only because they will have more of an intuitive understanding of the organization, the people, and the issues. On the other hand, an outsider is not tied to the past, and has more freedom to move in new ways. As a newcomer, they can move quickly on strategic issues. Operational issues may take longer to plan and execute changes, as such changes are more disruptive. Taking a bit more time also allows the new leader to gain credibility with the staff to drive cooperation – and assistance – in creating and implementing new processes and procedures. A new leader may feel compelled to act quickly to demonstrate to their superiors that they can be effective in the new position. Coming in, ask probing questions to assess what the expectations are. Moving on, meet frequently, sharing what you’re learning and seeing, and discussing your plans as they evolve. The new leader may have to probe to get at the real expectations. Much as President Obama has helped to define the priorities, the new leader has the opportunity, through these discussions, to set the priorities in conjunction with the people who they are responsible to. There is no one rule on how to fast to proceed when taking a leadership position. Speed depends upon the perceived urgency, and by asking questions – lots of questions – the new leader can proceed in the best interests of the organization, and of themselves.

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