The High-Speed Company: A book review by Bob Morris

High-Speed CompanyThe High-Speed Company: Creating Urgency and Growth in a Nanosecond Culture
Jason Jennings with Laurence Haughton
Portfolio/Penguin Group (March 2015)

How to accelerate personal growth and professional development in almost any organization, whatever its size or nature

In one of his previous evidence-driven books, Think Big, Act Small: How America’s Best Performing Companies Keep the Start-up Spirit Alive, Jason Jennings shares the results of his efforts to identify what became ten building blocks, each of which is examined in depth in that book. They are:

1. Down to Earth (i.e. leaders who are accessible, providing leadership that is transparent)
2. Keep Your Hands Dirty (e.g. SAS Institute at which leaders have “dirt under their nails”)
3. Make Short-Term Goals and Long-Term Horizons (e.g. Sonic Drive-In)
4. Let Go of the Status Quo, “business as usual” (e.g. Cabela’s)
5. Have Everyone Think and Act Like an Owner (e.g. Koch Industries)
6. Invent New Businesses (e.g. Dot Foods)
7. Create Win-Win Solutions for Everyone (e.g. Medline Industries)
8. Choose Your Competitors: decide where and when to compete (e.g. PETCO Animal Supplies)
9. Build Communities, not only organi9zations (e.g. Strayer Education)
10. Grow Future Leaders at all levels and in all areas (e.g. O’Reilly Automotive)

Each of these building blocks suggests inherent values that should guide and inform an organization’s hiring, onboarding, and development of people who embrace these values.

As I read Jennings’ most recent book, The High-Speed Company, I was again reminded of Jack Welch’s response at a GE annual meeting when its then chairman and CEO was asked why he admired small companies and wanted GE to function like one:

“For one, they communicate better. Without the din and prattle of bureaucracy, people listen as well as talk; and since there are fewer of them they generally know and understand each other. Second, small companies move faster. They know the penalties for hesitation in the marketplace. Third, in small companies, with fewer layers and less camouflage, the leaders show up very clearly on the screen. Their performance and its impact are clear to everyone. And, finally, smaller companies waste less. They spend less time in endless reviews and approvals and politics and paper drills. They have fewer people; therefore they can only do the important things. Their people are free to direct their energy and attention toward the marketplace rather than fighting bureaucracy.”

With the substantial assistance of Larry Haughton, also a renowned business thinker, Jennings’ latest book draws upon 11,000 interviews of leaders in all manner of organizations. He responds to a critically important question: “How to create a sense of urgency among the workforce while achieving and then sustaining profitable growth?” The pace of this book’s narrative correctly suggests the velocity at which changes occur in which has become a global marketplace, and, the velocity at which leaders must respond effectively to those changes.

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Jennings’ coverage:

o Stay in the Fast Lane, and, Be Fast or Die Slow (Pages 3-6)
o Four Words That Made a High-Speed Company (11-13)
o Purpose Attracts and Excites Everyone (14-16)
o Finding Your Purpose (19-22)
o Creating and Cascading Purpose: Keep It Brief and Make It Memorable (23-25)
o Faster, Smarter Decisions (37-40)
o The Value of Guiding Principles (40-46)
o A High-Speed Company Really Knows Its Customers (63-67)
o Creating and Cascading “Consumer First” (70-79)
o Creating and Cascading Transparency (85-100)
o Creating and Cascading Systemization (109-120)
o A Master Class in Connection (125-130)
o Creating and Cascading Better Communication (134-142)
o Creating and Cascading Accountability (150-163)
o Consistent Growth (168-172)
o Creating and Cascading Prosperity (179-184)
o he Final Piece of the Puzzle (186-189)
o Creating and Cascading Stewardship (192-205)

In the final chapter, Jennings cites a conversation in one of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, Bluebeard, when the painter Rabo Kazrabekian listens to his neighbor, Paul Slazinger, who tells him about his latest concept, “The Only Way to Have a Successful Revolution in Any Field of Human Activity.” He recommends a team of three specialists:

First, an authentic genius — a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in general circulation. “A genius working alone is invariably ignored as a lunatic.”

The next is a specialist…a highly intelligent citizen in good standing who understands and admires the fresh ideas of the genius and who testifies that the genius is far from mad. “A person like that…can only yearn out loud for changes but fail to say what their shapes should be.”

Finally, a person who can explain anything, no matter how complicated, to the satisfaction of most people no matter how stupid or pig-headed they may be. “He will say almost anything to be interesting and exciting…Working alone…he would be regarded as being as full of shit as a Christmas turkey.”

“If you can’t get as cast like that together, you can forget about anything in a great big way,” he [Slazinger] says.

To a significant extent, Jason Jennings combines the strengths of a visionary who recognizes or imagines what others don’t with those of an authority who validates and sanctions those breakthrough insights, and those of a raconteur of compelling stories that attract and engage others whose support is essential to the success of the given enterprise. His are the talents of a genius.

Slazinger’s concept may not be wholly relevant to all teams but does correctly stress the importance of combining a diversity of talents, experience, skills, and points of view in order to answer especially important questions or solve especially serious problems. All that said, the key to organizational success often depends on the nature and extent of a special kind of leadership that Jennings examined in previous works: stewardship. That is, leadership by women and men who go through life feeling “it’s mostly about others.” Robert Greenleaf characterizes them as servant leaders. Dan Goleman would say they have highly developed emotional intelligence. Jim O’Toole would say that their values and behavior are guided by a moral compass. Bill George suggests that the great leaders are authentic and follow what he characterizes as their True North: an internal compass that guides them as a human being at their deepest level. “It is your orienting point – your fixed point in a spinning world – that helps you stay on track as a leader. Your True North is based on what is most important to you, your most cherished values, your passions and motivations, the sources of satisfaction in your life. Just as a compass points toward a magnetic field, your True North pulls you toward the purpose of your leadership.”

According to Jennings, the people who lead the fastest and best-performing companies don’t see the world’s problems, opportunities, rewards, and costs through the lens of what they mean to them. “They understand that true happiness and satisfaction come when we focus on others. They are, at heart, caregivers who see their purposes as being the best stewards of the resources, both tangible and intangible, that have been entrusted to them and making sure that all assets are used efficiently, effectively, and profitably.

“The single shared trait that I’d been looking for was stewardship. It was also the essential last piece of the puzzle for creating urgency and growth in a nanosecond culture.”

I conclude this review with my favorite passage in a work believed to have been written around 6th century BC, Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

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