Why great leaders execute with speed

Why do we never seem to have enough time? Despite all the benefits of technology, why can we never get things done fast enough?

I ponder these questions daily when I think of my own personal development but also as a leader within PageGroup.

So when I found out, we, in partnership with Arcadia Consulting, had the chance to bring Joe Folkman, best-selling author and an expert on organisational agility and leadership development, over to Asia, I was truly excited. Maybe he had the answers.

Mark Weston, director at Arcadia Consulting, and I caught up with Joe over the phone recently. With the 14-hour time difference between us (we were in our Hong Kong morning, he in Utah at night), we planned to chat for 15 minutes initially but it turned out to be three times as long – but it was also one of the most rewarding conversations I've ever had.

Here are the best extracts about our conversation on leadership speed.

Andy: Can you define “speed” and why execution speed and leadership ability are so clearly correlated?

Joe: Speed is the combination of doing things fast and doing things right. If you think about it, the technology we use now didn't exist 30 years ago.

Back in the 1930s, English economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that automation and industrial mechanisation would reduce the amount of labour that people would have to put into work.

He said in the future, people would only be working three-hour work days, 15 hours a week. Well, guess what? It's totally backfired and what's happened is the exact opposite.

As technology has made things more efficient, we've just crammed more and expect more of what people can do. So that brings about the whole issue of pace: the organisation that's first to market, the one that meets the client first, the one that can respond and solve a problem quicker and faster — they're going to be the successful ones.

And then, when we asked people to rate the best leaders in their organisation, three words kept being clustered together: “quick”, “fast” and “efficient”. We did this study across many different companies and results were the same.

From there, it just became obvious that the speed at which leaders work was making a huge difference. We isolated those factors and compared this in a data set of about 50,000 leaders and here's what we saw: leaders who were below the top quartile on the speed factor, their average leadership effectiveness was around the 40th percentile. Those in the top quartile on speed, their average effectiveness jumped to the 83rd percentile, more than double. So this one characteristic – speed -- had an enormous bearing on leadership effectiveness.

In a separate study, we asked people what it would be like to work for a really speedy leader — would they love it or hate it?

The results showed the faster you are as a leader, the more your employees love it. Now think about the jobs you hated, what was happening? It was when things got stalled, where things got delayed or stopped, where decision-making was slow. People hate that. People love it when things get done, when things get accomplished.

The key then is for people to better understand their personal pace and the pace they love to move at. As a leader, how do you increase leadership speed without killing yourself or making your staff feel frantic and stressed?

Mark: How do you execute at speed within a global, complex organisation or one where traditional work processes (and people!) are entrenched?

Joe: I'll answer this two ways.

The first, strategic perspective. How many times have you read or experienced a company where not everyone's clear about the strategy or direction, where one group is going in one direction and another's going in a different direction. That creates conflict between groups.

When people are clear about the strategy, speed goes up. When people are not clear, when people don't know who's supposed to be doing what, when people start asking questions like “Where are we going?”, then people start going down rabbit holes.

Second, external perspective. So often in companies, people focus inside the business, what's happening internally, what are our problems?

What they fail to look at is outside the business: What are our customers going through? What do our customers want? What are our competitors doing? People so often get caught up in internal politics that they don't see what's going on outside their business.

When you start looking externally, all of a sudden you realise, “We're going to be left in the dust!” Just being able to have that external perspective can have a tremendous impact on how people make decisions and how to quickly move.

Andy: When you look at different regions, does culture play a big part in speed of execution?

Joe: Singapore and Hong Kong are the two fastest cultures I've seen in the world: it's crazy there! But we've also seen countries where the pace is much different. The Philippines, for example. The Middle East, South American countries like Brazil and Mexico are where things function at a slower pace. But leaders and companies in these countries see it so clearly. If they can get a leap on their competition, they are going to have a tremendous strategic advantage.

How do you do that if people are moving slow? How can staff be encouraged to increase their personal pace so that influences organisational pace? Ultimately, we're not trying to make people crazier, we are trying to make them more efficient and we're trying to make this pace easier to cope with.

Joe Folkman is co-founder and president of Zenger Folkman. With more than 30 years of experience, he is a respected authority on individual and organisational change, an acclaimed keynote speaker and co-author of best-seller of “The Extraordinary Leader: Turning Good Managers into Great Leaders”.

On Oct 17, Michael Page Human Resources and Arcadia Consulting hosted Joe for a one-day leadership workshop in Hong Kong entitled, “The Key to Organisational Agility: Leadership Speed”. If you would like to discuss future collaborations, please contact us


The best leaders execute with speed. Research has shown a clear correlation between speed and leadership effectiveness.  The key then is for people to better understand their personal pace and the pace they love to move at. As a leader, how do you increase leadership speed without killing yourself or making your staff feel frantic and stressed?

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