x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

How do you lead with speed? Well, Cairo traffic offers a lesson

Not long ago I was sitting at a standstill in Cairo traffic, once again making my way across the metropolis, and I learnt a couple of things about speed. First, I learnt that a Porsche is not the fastest mode of transport on the gridlocked streets.

John Chambers of Cisco says: “All of my biggest mistakes occurred because I moved too slowly.” The pace picking up in the UAE creating the autobahn of business makes me wonder: “How do you lead with speed?”

Please forgive the oversimplicity of this analogy, but it does bring to life what it takes to lead with speed. Think for a moment, and answer the question: “What does it take to drive fast?”

Not long ago I was sitting at a standstill in Cairo traffic, once again making my way across the metropolis, and I learnt a couple of things about speed. First, I learnt that a Porsche is not the fastest mode of transport on the gridlocked streets. Rather, contrary to common sense, the slow-moving giant construction trucks were by far the fastest vehicles on the road, as every car was giving way to them.

What we needed was the right vehicle for the environment.

Leaders have to do the same thing by adapting to the local environment—they need to choose the right approach. In a youthful and fast-growth market, your leadership style should be open, nimble, imaginative, able to navigate ambiguity, and—most important—not restrained by heavy bureaucracy and controls. The moral here is that it is important to have the right leadership approach for the business environment.

Once you’ve selected the right vehicle and decided on the right approach, then knowing the road should give you even more insight. This part is too often overlooked. Think of it as a common sense approach: if the driver of a car does not know the road, he or she will be more hesitant and overly cautious.

As a leader, this means making sure your team knows your strategy (where you are heading) and plan (how you will get there), and that both you and the team know your people (those who will help you get there). I have never understood why this is difficult for leaders to understand and apply. But it is even more important in fast-growth markets that are characterised by ambiguity, complexity, rapid change and youthfulness.

Speed bumps, congestion on the road, debris and others’ accidents all stand in the way of speed. To a business, speed bumps are organisational bureaucracy, government interference, risk aversion, protectionism, overcontrol and even the competition. The effective leader has the capacity to circumvent or remove all of the barriers to speed so that his or her business revenue, profits and market share can grow rapidly. If you neither clear the road nor navigate through its impediments, the speed of the market will cause it to move right past you and potentially put you out of business.

A young workforce needs clear direction. Without it, employees will get distracted and try to go in every direction at once. It is your job as leader to point them in the right direction, give tips on how to get the work done and set them free to sprint forward. But don’t forget that providing clarity includes on-the-job and at-pace accountability.

In many ways, when it comes to speed, a leader is like a jockey with his horse. It is the jockey’s job to keep the horse focused. Wherever the jockey looks, the horse tends to lean in that direction. Similarly, to provide clarity, as a leader you need to personally stay focused on the outcome you want to achieve. When trying to go fast, a glance off course can lead you and your team into the rails.

I was watching my son play a game on his PlayStation called Grand Theft Auto. As I sat and watched, I noticed he hadn’t mastered how to drive fast. As a result, he became a cyberhazard to himself and to everyone on the road—even to those near the road. It’s not a whole lot different for leaders who haven’t mastered leadership in the context of a fast-growth market. They become like my son in Grand Theft Auto and me as a teenager—hazards to everyone around them.

One big danger about fast leadership is that when you crash at top speeds, it’s a big deal. Therefore, to lead successfully in fast-growth markets, leaders must (1) have the right vehicle for the local business environment, (2) know the roadway of business, (3) remove the barriers to speed, (4) provide clarity and of course (5) avoid crashing.

Tommy Weir is a leadership adviser, the author of 10 Tips for Leading in the Middle East and other leadership writings and the founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center