The Traits of Leaders Who Do Things Fast and Well

110-jack_zengerJack Zenger is the CEO of Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy. He is a coauthor of the October 2011 HBR article “Making Yourself Indispensable” and the book Speed: How Leaders Accelerate Successful Execution (McGraw Hill, 2016). Connect with Jack at

An exceptional leader we know would occasionally get a question from his direct reports in a variety of forms but with the common message, “Do you want this done fast or right?” His answer was always the same: “Yes!” He chose not to compromise on either dimension. For this leader and for most highly effective leaders we know, making mistakes is not an option. But neither is slowing down. 

Over the last few years we’ve been increasingly interested in the impact of a leader’s preference for speed versus a “slow and steady” mode of operation. It’s clear that overall, organizational processes, communications, and human interactions in the world are speeding up. Many organizations are looking for ways to become more agile. Perhaps leaders worry that their organizations cannot move faster if their employees operate slowly.

We created an assessment to measure an individual’s preference for moving at a slow or fast pace. In the assessment, we also measured preference for quality versus quantity. After gathering data on more than 5,000 leaders across the globe, we discovered a strong tendency for those with a fast pace to also have a strong preference toward quantity rather than quality of work. Fifty-eight percent of respondents have this preference. We also noticed that 19% had a stronger quality focus and a slower pace. This group was concerned that working faster could create errors or mistakes. Their tendency was to slow down in order to maintain high quality. (If you would like to evaluate your own pace and see how you compare, you can take it here. It’s free but we ask for your email address.)

We meet many groups that, when challenged to work faster, worry doing so will cause errors and poor quality. The group we were interested in for this research, however, was the people who preferred a faster pace but also had a quality focus. Is this really possible? And what does it take for a leader to have both high quality and fast pace? 

To research this question, we turned to another data set, one that includes information on more than 75,000 leaders. This data set contained 360-degree assessments with ratings from an average of 13 raters. In the dataset we measured a leader’s speed and their quality of output. We identified a group of leaders who were in the top quartile on both speed and quality and compared this group to all other leaders in the database. We computed statistical tests on 49 leadership behaviors. We sought to identify the most differentiating behaviors of leaders who were rated as having high levels of both speed and quality. What did they do differently from other leaders? All of the 49 behaviors were statistically significant, so we were searching for those that differentiated most powerfully.

The analysis identified seven unique factors that appear to identify what it takes to combine these two seemingly contradictory critical leadership goals. 

  • Provide clear strategic perspective. Leaders rated as having both high speed and high quality were absolutely clear about the vision and direction of the organization. They were also rated as better at taking a longer term, broader view. They were effective at defining that perspective and then sharing their insights with others so the strategy could be translated into challenging, meaningful goals and objectives. Naturally, knowing where the organization is going and which direction is correct would increase both speed and quality. Without a clear map, people get lost and waste a good deal of time.
  • Set stretch goals and maintain high standards. Stretch goals have a natural tendency to increase speed. People will stay busy without stretch goals but will not accomplish as much. Stretch goals can increase our effort. To ensure quality these leaders also set high standards so that others knew exactly what high quality work looked like.
  • Communicate powerfully. When everyone understands where they are going, what problems need to be resolved and where projects are in terms of milestones, both speed and quality increase. When people are uninformed, confused or given misleading direction, errors occur and work slows.
  • Have the courage to change. Speedy leaders with high quality output became the champions of change. They were excellent at marketing projects, programs or products. Slow leaders who produce poor quality resist change.
  • Consider external perspectives. Leaders who were consumed with an internal focus on the organizational problems and concerns tended to miss big shifts in the environment and customer’s preferences. This led to speed reductions and quality problems. The leaders who were top in speed and quality are skilled at looking outside the organization and identifying trends and changing mindsets early.
  • Inspire and motivate others. These leaders have the ability to inspire people in the organization. Direct reports felt they were on a mission and that what they did was essential. Direct reports of uninspiring leaders feel that they just have a job and they work for their pay. Most leaders know how to push other to accomplish objectives but these leaders know how to create a pull where others wanted to deliver both excellence and speed.
  • Innovate. Leaders with fast execution and high quality were always looking for a fresher, faster, more efficient way to deliver. Having a desire to increase both speed and quality using standard procedures is often impossible and therefore requires new innovative procedures. Leaders who look for innovative solutions find a way to have the best of both worlds.

An increasing number of roles require high speed combined with high quality. We believe this achievement is possible.


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