As soon as you step into a top position at a company that needs to significantly improve the way it operates, there’s pressure to get off to a quick start. Yet the best way to succeed, paradoxically, is to slow things down. Forces pushing in the other direction are powerful, of course. You must prove you are the right leader by getting the organization to deliver better results, and soon. That’s why you were brought in.
So, you set out for early wins in what seem like obvious areas to fix — on the cost side, perhaps the speed of processes within production, and on the revenue side, the size of the sales force. Or if you’re in HR, by implementing a faster and more efficient hiring process. But rushing toward early wins, even in areas that seem uncontroversial, can be unexpectedly hazardous. That’s because when a new leader takes hold, changes aren’t just about efficiency or revenue; they are also about people’s feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty about what the changes will mean for them. And we should not underestimate this specific dynamic.
No matter how sophisticated and mature the new leader may be, rushing too quickly toward early wins can deprive the new leader of the insight needed to understand the culture and build relationships. As a consequence, quick wins may soon be undone, or they may beget new leadership problems.
Deliberately slowing down allows you to clarify what the people around you want most, the effects of your behavior, sources of resistance, and the ramifications of your decisions. The result: You will have more control over the pace of your transition to new leadership responsibilities and the company’s transition to its new era.
How to Slow Down in a High-Speed Job
In order to build coalitions, a new leader must recognize that a handoff at the top is unsettling for everyone. Employees wonder how expectations of them will change, and executives worry about the effect on their power bases. It takes months for a new leader to allay concerns and win loyalty — a reality even for a leader who is promoted from within and is, therefore, a known person.
Subordinates will follow a leader they can count on. Decisiveness is an important factor, but more important is wise judgment in the face of complex, important challenges. Followers want the leader to listen to their ideas and merge them with her own, and they want to see her handle difficult problems carefully. This requires controlling the action and slowing down the pace.
There are a handful of techniques that allow the new leader to do this. They fall into five categories: control the flow, reflect, repeat, question, and use silence.
Control the flow. Because a new leader inherits their predecessor’s administrative system, the mismatch between the rhythm of the new office and their decision-making style can slow progress toward early successes. Managing the flow of information into your office and into your brain is critically important for the judgment required by the most important issues. That can happen much more quickly with a structural step: creating a senior aide position, such as a chief of staff, who is responsible for making sure the right information reaches you at the right time and in the right format.
Reflect. Controlling the flow should offer more time for reflection so that you can better grasp subtleties of relationships and the underlying meaning of information coming at you. It’s enormously helpful to have trusted advisers — both inside and outside — who are dedicated to your success and have expertise in areas important to your agenda.
Repeat. Even if you understand perfectly what has been said in a meeting or one-on-one discussion, repeat what you heard. Similarly, when you want to verify that you’ve been understood, ask the listener to repeat what you said. In addition to allowing confirmation of what is intended, repetition momentarily halts the discussion’s forward motion and gives you a chance to think about where you want to take the conversation next.
Question. From time to time, ask summing-up questions such as, “What did we just do?” “What just happened here?” and “What should we learn from that?” Questions like these force a pause, preventing a discussion from rushing to a premature decision or blocking a group from coalescing around what may be the wrong conclusion. Unlike declarative statements, which only require listeners to be polite, questions require them to “go active” as they think of an answer and try to figure out why the boss is asking.
Use silence. A pause before responding has a double benefit. It offers the leader a chance to weigh alternatives and decide the best way to respond, and it pushes others to wonder what’s going through the leader’s mind, which may cause them to think more creatively.
All of these steps really help: they slow down the pace of interactions and decisions so that who’s in charge can be more aware of how he is being perceived and so that he can carefully assess the consequences of his decisions. Also, any leader who follows these is more likely to realize that how he achieved early successes was as important as achieving them. Don’t rush into things, sometimes slowing it down will help you achieve great results over the long term!