leadership skills momentum

Got Momentum? 3 Essential Leadership Skills to Help You Execute with Speed

By Jordan Staples, Director of Modern Work Enablement at Workfront

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History was made on May 5th, 1973, the 99th running of the Kentucky Derby. Secretariat’s chances of winning were in doubt, coming off a third-place finish two weeks earlier at the Wood Memorial Stakes.

Thirteen horses burst out of the gates, with Secretariat settling into a last place starting position. A quarter into the race, he and jockey Rony Turcott were in 11th place. But they were gaining speed. At the midway point, they were in 6th place. Then Secretariat made a move that would go down as the greatest finish in horse-racing history. The American Thoroughbred moved to the outside and roared past the field, overtaking Sham to win the Kentucky Derby by two-and-a-half lengths, setting a record that still stands 40 years later. Shecky Greene, who led most of the race, ended in 6th. Secretariat increased his speed each quarter mile, even setting the quarter mile record on his last 400m. 

The difference between Secretariat and the field? 

Momentum.    

One of the great lessons in leadership I’m learning today was captured by my CEO in his book Done Right: How Tomorrow’s Top Leaders Get Work Done, when he said, “Your primary responsibility as a leader is to create and maintain direction and momentum.” 

No matter how great a strategy, product, or service you sell — or the quality of people on your team — your collective ability to execute with speed will determine whether you win or lose in today’s market. Put simply, teams with momentum achieve the best results, regardless of who started ahead of them or how far behind they were at the beginning. But how do you create and maintain momentum in an unpredictable work environment, when you don’t have the luxury of circling a smooth, familiar track — and are, instead, figuratively creating the track as you go?

That’s the question I recently answered in a presentation at Workfront’s annual LEAP conference. Drawing upon the lessons we’re learning here at Workfront, I outlined three essential skills every leader must master in order to achieve the extraordinary results we’re after in the world of modern work.

1. Engage Your Team

Your people are your most important contributors when it comes to creating and achieving momentum, and there are three qualities in particular to pay attention to: capability, chemistry, and conviction.

First, you need to be sure you’re starting with what’s needed to get the job done. You need to ask:

  1. Do I have the right people to get this done?
  2. Do they have what they believe is necessary to hit this goal?

To achieve the extraordinary, your team needs to have the right mix of talent and access to the right resources. If important traits are missing from the mix—whether that’s technical knowledge, contacts, or character — momentum will elude you.

Once capabilities are covered, you need to look at chemistry, which I’d argue is the most important element in achieving extraordinary results. At Workfront, we understand our personality mix by using the Insight Discovery Wheel, a psychometric test which assigns a color — from fiery red to cool blue — to different personality types. Tests like these give team members a common vocabulary to use as they work to create balance and harmony within the group — and communicate more effectively with one another.

And finally, there’s conviction, which is built from three simple ingredients that form the foundation of Alex’s book and serve as his guiding philosophy: “People do their best work when they understand their role, believe their role matters, and are proud of the work they do.”

[Harvard Business Review Report, Sponsored by Workfront: “The Future of Work: A Nexus of Strategy and Execution”]

2. Practice Ruthless Prioritization

Momentum requires you to focus ruthlessly on the work that will move you forward and jettison anything that’s dragging you down — a real challenge in the “busyness culture” that afflicts the modern enterprise. British psychologist Tony Crabbe uses this term to describe the culture of perpetual motion, where everyone feels they don’t have time to do the jobs they’re paid to do (often because “shadow work” — the stuff that seems remote from our goals — eats up close to half of their time). Another contributor is the fact that people feel insulated against criticism when they appear to be busy, even if that busyness isn’t contributing to actual progress. “You never have to justify working faster and harder and quicker,” Crabbe says. “And that’s why busyness is seductive.”

Yes, there’s an endless stream of tasks, platforms, people, and projects constantly vying for your attention — and mine. But Angela Duckworth, author of the best seller Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, has an interesting way of framing a solution. “Gritty leaders are incredibly hard-working,” she says. “But they’re also lazy because they don’t want to work on everything. In fact, they typically only want to work on one thing: the one thing they love. And everything else becomes a second priority. Leaders need to brutally prioritize their one thing above all other things, about which they should be really, infinitely industrious. But at the same time, they need to be lazy about everything else.”

Leaders must work on what matters and let the rest slide. Facebook and Google, among other companies, are combating this by trying to create a culture where people feel empowered to not get everything done. For example, at Facebook, managers are starting to set “non-goals” — calling out what their team will not do while they focus on achieving strategic objectives.

Busyness does not equal momentum, and we don’t have to accept the prevailing culture that rewards the appearance of effort over actual accomplishment. Strive to create a more trusting culture where coworkers are empowered to put extraordinary goals first and let go of shadow work.

3. Make Good Decisions, Not Perfect Ones

Energy, drive, and focus are all magic ingredients, when channeled appropriately. But sometimes momentum can carry a team away. When there’s so much focus and commitment that there’s no room for critical thinking, you may achieve momentum, but it’s not the kind you want. Academics Kathleen M. Sutcliffe and Michelle A. Barton call this phenomenon “dysfunctional momentum.” Writing in the MIT Sloan Management Review, they suggest there are five reasons that momentum can go awry:

  1. Over-reliance on action
  2. Inflexible planning
  3. The ripple effect of small changes
  4. Rationalization of information that invalidates what they expect
  5. Deference to the expertise of others — particularly those with more power/status

As a leader, your teams rely on your ability to make decisions. There are a lot of variables coming at them, and they look to you to keep the ship moving in the right direction, especially when they can’t see what that might be. Yes, the leaders of today and tomorrow will have more data to guide their decisions than at any point in human history, but does that guarantee leaders will make better decisions? Not by a long shot. Out of 600 global executives who responded to a Cap Gemini/Economist Intelligence Unit survey, forty-two percent expressed concern over the complexity and time it takes to interpret unstructured data.

There are two momentum pitfalls at play here. If you achieve momentum, but in the wrong direction, you’ll miss out on achieving the extraordinary and demoralize your team. On the other hand, if you get bogged down in decision-making, you’ll never get off the ground in the first place.

So what’s a leader to do? What great leaders have always done: take the best evidence you can find and trust your gut. Alex points to former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s P40/P70 rule. “Sometime after you have obtained 40 percent of all the information you are liable to get,” Powell says, “start thinking in terms of making a decision. When you have about 70 percent of all the information, you probably ought to decide because you may lose an opportunity in losing time.”

Don’t let your aim for perfect decisions derail your ability to make good decisions. As Alex writes, “Get comfortable with making decisions with less than 100 percent certainty. The leaders who win will be those courageous enough to make decisions without waiting for all possible information.”

Full Speed Ahead

Whether you find yourself at the back of the pack, like Secretariat, or at the front, like Shecky Greene, the results of the race will be determined more by the way you run than by your starting position. If you can work toward engaging your team more effectively, practicing ruthless prioritization, and making “good enough” decisions quickly and repeatedly, you’ll have the momentum you need to carry you across that finish line — bringing even the most extraordinary goals within reach.

[Harvard Business Review Report, Sponsored by Workfront: “The Future of Work: A Nexus of Strategy and Execution”]

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