What You Can Learn From Newtonian Physics About Building Momentum Fast

There's a growing trend toward interim leadership. Here's how temp CEOs—and all of us—can kickstart company progress in no time at all.

There is a revolution underway. The old career model is falling away for a growing number of leaders. The days of lifetime employment are eroding and the implications for you, as a leader, are profound.

I got a chance to speak to someone at the forefront of this wave last week. Cindy Lubitz is the founder and managing director of inTalent Consulting Group, LLC, an Atlanta-based human resources consulting firm that specializes in helping companies tap the growing base of top-tier talent that doesn’t want a job.

She explained that a confluence of factors is driving the shift toward interim leadership. "At the macro level, to do a search [for talent], it takes three to six months. So it is very pragmatic for companies to have an interim plan. Temporary staffing has arisen out of this need."

There are also more high-caliber executives on the market looking for temporary work because of the recession. There are more retirees. More people are demanding flexibility, time with their family, balance. Heating this trend further is the fact that for many people the recession and accompanying job cuts have broken the corporate contract. Executives who once thought loyalty begot loyalty had their reality shaken when companies launched across-the-board cuts.

Being an interim leader requires a different leadership skill set. Many traditional sources of influence—formal authority, the pull you enjoy by being known as a rapidly rising leader—fall away.

But being an interim leader also has advantages. Appearing on the job as an interim leader can "create a sense of relief that you are here," Lubitz said. You are less threatening. It is easier for others to accept you and trust you. You are often viewed as unbiased.

To succeed as an interim leader requires a different approach. You cannot commit your company to long-term projects like adopting a new CRM system. What you build must set the foundation for a future leader’s success. And yet, within these constraints, you must create direction, momentum … in a far shorter period of time than a permanent leader can afford.

In his seminal book The First 90 Days, Michael Watkins advises that, as a leader in the first 90 days of a new leadership role, you should promote yourself, accelerate your learning, match your strategy to the situation, and create coalitions. Much of what he prescribes does not apply when your tenure will not be much more than 90 days.

At the heart of the challenge of being an interim leader is the ability to rapidly create the right kind of momentum. This skill does not just apply to interim leaders. With people changing roles more often, and startups shifting strategy more rapidly, this is becoming an essential skill for anyone.

How do we build momentum rapidly? Isaac Newton gives us a key.
Newtonian physics states that momentum ("P") is the product of mass ("M") and velocity ("V"). Mass represents your organization’s size, your staff, your systems, your volume. Velocity represents your pace of change.

If you have a small organization (lower mass) and more time to exert your force, you can build momentum easily. But if your organization is large and the time you have to exert force on it is short, the challenge grows.

Here are four quick tips to build momentum quickly in your organization.

  1. Forget your legacy. "Be ‘planful’ of about what happens when you are gone, not just under your legacy," Lubitz suggests. Look for the initiatives that, once put into motion, will continue after you are gone.
  2. Adopt the vision. Quickly understand the vision, the mission of your group. You are there to execute against that vision, not necessarily design a new one.
  3. Find the wave. J.C. Larreche, author of The Momentum Effect, writes "[Momentum leaders] live by this motto: First build your wave, then ride it." As an interim leader you may not have the time to build a wave, so instead think about where the momentum and energy and excitement is and build on it.
  4. Pick off quick wins. Success builds excitement and comforts those who would question your skills. Sort through the matrix of initiatives you might put force behind and prioritize those that can give you quick wins.

[Image: Flickr user + Rainbow +]

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