There is an area of versatility where both junior and seasoned executives struggle: the skill to flex between acting fast or slow, and having the sensitivity to know the difference.
While having a coffee with a mentor, we discussed a consuming force in today’s work culture: the pressure to act “fast.”
Senior executives are concerned about speed to market, sales performance, and the time it takes to see return on investment. Ambitious middle managers are concerned about professional advancement and signs of appreciation.
Our conversation reminded me that despite all the talk about generational differences in the workplace, what the generations have in common is the tendency to celebrate the “fast” and marginalize the “slow.”
The Framing Question
Have many of us stopped to reflect on why “fast” seems so progressive and virtuous? Is our view of “fast” one that is adaptive or addictive? Objective or obsessive? Is it healthy for us and our careers?
Is this a fast culture or a Cult of Fast?
Both “culture” and “cult” come from Latin “colere,” which means “inhabited, cultivated, worshipped.” The words evolved to mean:
- Culture: “The customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.”
- Cult: “Obsession with, fixation on, mania for, passion for, idolization of, devotion to, worship of, veneration of…”
On the spectrums of open and closed, full view and hidden, awareness and lack of awareness, we would not have much difficulty placing “culture” at one end and “cult” at the other. Where does “fast” fall for you?
There are times to use “fast” and times to use “slow.” The choice depends on the context and the desired quality of outcome.
Consider the following vignettes from personal experience:
- In No Rush
I am fortunate to have a mentor who is what many women strive to be. She is a management consultant to Fortune 100 companies, a professor at a renowned business school, an entrepreneur, a wife and a mother.
It would seem that in addition to being brilliant, experienced, and connected, she must also be fast at getting things done. However her physical movements and way of speaking are quite measured and slow. In fact when one maps out the timeline of her accomplishments it becomes clear that none of it happened quickly. It took decades to get to the enviable position where she is today.
Once a student asked my mentor why she hadn’t done this or that yet in regards to her entrepreneurial venture. Her response was (with a hint of attitude), “Why should I have to do things fast? I’m in no rush. I’ll just take my time, thank you.”
- Two Family Dinners
I have two friends, one from Barcelona and the other from Toronto, who have the responsibility of preparing the meals for their respective families.
One friend, Mr. Barcelona enjoys making a shrimp dish that is cooked by the flash fire technique, flambé. Mrs. Toronto loves to make a shredded pork dish that stews for hours in the heat of a slow-cooker.
I’ve had both dishes and found each of them to be satisfyingly complex, flavorful and memorable. One dish was cooked fast, the other cooked slowly, but in the end they both tasted great.
Quality over quantity is a universal law that new technology has not changed.
One wouldn’t know this just from taking a look at social media today. We try to consume as much as we can as fast as we can. So being “fast” at reading, commenting, and sharing is normal behavior.
A harmless, intergenerational illustration of this are people who comment on or repost articles that they have not read. His or her assumption must be that no one else is reading the content either.
What is not so harmless is how preferring breadth over depth might impact the quality of executive decision-making now and in the future. Imagine a Millennial ten years from now who is a department head and is tasked to cut 15% of overhead costs. Will she have the capacity to act “slow” and reflect thoughtfully before acting? Or will she flambé what should be slow-cooked?
Suggestions for Change
The three actions that come to mind focus on how to incorporate more “slow” into a world that already is full of “fast.”
- Stop multitasking. A previous post, “Why I Stopped Multitasking,” reflects on the personal and professional benefits I experienced when I learned to slow down and do one thing at a time.
- Just say “no.” When asked to flambé a project that you know needs to be slow-cooked, say “no.” This is easier said than done, and takes to time to learn how to do effectively.
Senior executives can learn to appreciate hearing “no” and to consider it valuable feedback that creates an opportunity to prioritize or re-scope a project to ensure its quality.
- Focus. The adage “jack of all trades and master of none” encourages gaining deep and specialized knowledge in a niche. Mastery is a not a flambé, but rather a slow-cooked meal. The way to achieve it is through focus. At the same time, focus speeds up the attainment of mastery.
Learning to calibrate to less “fast” and more “slow” may disappoint the bosses who are interested in succeeding off of the backs of teams that get it all done but are burnt out as a result.
However the boss who encourages her team to do focused and quality work that gets the team noticed, is a leader worth following. To recognize this type of boss, pay attention to their use of “fast” and “slow.”
Stacie Hoffmeister is the founder of Facts + Heresies LLC, a boutique consultancy focused on helping brands win the loyalty of Millennials as consumers and colleagues. Stacie has over a decade of experience in global brand management and innovation at Unilever, Coty and LVMH.
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