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  • Toby Sinclair

Book Summary: Superfast Lead at Speed by Sophie Devonshire

Updated: Feb 13, 2022

Book Cover of Superfast Lead at Speed by Sophie Devonshire
A book summary of Superfast Lead at Speed by Sophie Devonshire

3 Big Ideas

  1. Leaders need to learn how to lead themselves in high-speed environments to lead others. Energy management in particular is essential for leaders.

  2. Decide. Delegate, Deliver. These are the key focus areas for leaders in high-speed environments.

  3. Simple approaches, with clarity and compelling purpose, are what enable organisations to move quickly at scale. Leaders need to create the frameworks and alignment to give others the ability to act autonomously at speed.


The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.
Lead at speed Quote - The difference between successful people and really successful people?  Really successful people say no to almost everything. - Sophie Devonshire
Careful of blaming the lettuce for not growing when the soil is poor Thich Nhât Hanh

1 Takeaway


A longer book summary if you have more time… 


Why repeated pace-setting is an essential leadership practice

If someone offers you a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask which seat.
  • You’ve got to deliver on short-range commitments, while you develop a long-range strategy and vision and implement it. Metaphor: Walking and chewing gum.

  • Pace-setting is about working out the variety that’s needed in your velocity in order to achieve sustainable success.

  • Second mover advantage; let the competition do the work and spend the money in establishing a category or changing people’s behaviour.

  • Innocent Smoothies – MVP Experiment:

    • At a music festival, we put up a big sign asking people if they thought we should give up our jobs to make smoothies and put a bin saying ‘Yes’ and a bin saying ‘No’ in front of the stall. Then we got people to vote with their empties. At the end of the weekend, the ‘Yes’ bin was full, so we resigned from our jobs the next day and got cracking.

  • Persistence wins the race not your unique idea

  • Organise everything around Products (customers)

    • Apple had been setting up its store like any other–organized around the different products that it would be selling. ‘But if Apple’s going to organize around activities like music and movies, well, the store should be organized around music and movies and things you do,’

  • Popcorn Leaders can be confusing for teams – Leaders who fire out so many ideas the team are confused about what is really important.

  • Wall Street’s graveyards are filled with people who were right too soon.

  • Key question: ‘How much time do we have before the risk profile changes?’ (Cost of Delay)

Time – The secret to delivering with stamina and speed

I firmly believe that time management is not important; energy management is. Paul Polman, Global CEO, Unilever
Learn from the mistakes of others. You cannot live long enough to make them all yourself. Eleanor Roosevelt
  • Effective energy management is not something that comes automatically in today’s busy world of business.

  • Three energy actions:

    • Exercise

    • Scheduling around your energy levels

    • Powering off to power on (work and rest).

  • Barack Obama incorporated at least 45 minutes of physical activity into his daily schedule when President.

  • Many smart leaders know the time of the day they work best.

If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first. Mark Twain
  • What are your energy triggers–physical, mental, social?

  • The best way is to recognise that the week follows a particular rhythm, and plan accordingly.

  • ‘low-fi’ Fridays. Save Fridays for internal conversations and administration (expenses, emails) rather than important new business meetings or running senior leadership summits which require intense energy.

  • Zap the ‘energy vampires’ in your business

  • American study claimed that only 56 per cent of employees felt physically energized at work.

  • The smartest employers are able to consider the overall environment and design for energy.

  • Decision-making quality drops the longer people go without a break. In one study, where hospital leaders were trying to encourage the use of hand sanitizers, they found that compliance rates fell when people worked long hours without a break.

  • Time is finite. Energy isn’t.

Purpose drives pace

  • The stronger your purpose is, and the more people are aligned with it, the more it will permeate short-term volatilities.

  • Purpose (which should last at least 100 years) should not be confused with specific goals or business strategies (which should change many times in 100 years). You cannot fulfil a purpose; it’s like a guiding star on the horizon–forever pursued but never reached.

  • Purpose Blockers:

    • Confusing purpose with corporate social responsibility or with high-level generic brand slogans.

    • Purpose stays on the poster – Behaviours, especially of the leaders do not align

    • They don’t know how to measure the impact of being purpose-led, and if they can’t measure it they won’t get it done.

Just living is not enough. One must have sunshine, freedom… and a little flower. Hans Christian Andersen
  • When your purpose is clear, every future decision becomes much easier.

  • Slow decision-making is the number-one speed-killer in organizations.

  • Questions to define purpose:

    • What does your organization do to help people?

    • What is the difference you’re seeking to make in the lives of customers and consumers?

    • Why is it good to be part of what you do?

    • How do you define this in a memorable and compelling way?

  • Purpose Organisations do the following:

    • Stand up

    • Stand out

    • Stand firm

Structure for speed Fast frameworks

  • Questioning, reviewing and being decisive about what the right structure is for your needs can be one of the most influential acts you take as a leader.

  • Organisation Design Metaphor

    • Speed is contextual and choosing the right vehicle depends on the length of your journey, your ultimate destination and what kind of bumps and accidents you are prepared to tolerate getting to there.

  • One of the most effective things we’ve done is to de-layer this organization. There are now five layers from top to bottom. When I arrived there were ten. It makes for simpler, quicker decision-making.

  • Rule of Thumb for Transformation:

    • For every layer in the company, you will need a year to change the culture.

Editing is expediting

  • Focusing on less is a radical way to make you better and to make you faster. Become an effective editor.

  • Example in action:

    • The ceramics teacher announced that he was dividing his class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class, he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the ‘quantity’ group: 50 pounds of pots rated an A, 40 pounds a B, and so on. Those being graded on ‘quality’, however, needed to produce only one pot–albeit a perfect one–to get an A. Well, come grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the ‘quantity’ group was busily churning out piles of work–and learning from their mistakes–the ‘quality’ group had sat theorizing about perfection and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

  • Constraints shape and focus problems, and provide clear challenges to overcome as well as inspiration.

  • Silent Meetings:

    • The meetings start with proposals being shared and every one reading them then and there. They have 15–30 minutes’ silence to do so. Those proposals can be no more than six pages long, a constraint that speeds up communication. This ‘Study Hall’ start to meetings is an initiative from Jeff Bezos, who explains that it is more effective than PowerPoint: ‘If you have a traditional PowerPoint presentation, executives interrupt. If you read the whole six-page memo, on page 2 you have a question but on page 4 that question is answered.’

  • Avoid at all costs list:

    • Step 1: Write down your top 25 career goals on a single piece of paper.

    • Step 2: Circle only your top five options.

    • Step 3: Put the top five on one list and the remaining 20 on a second list.

    • Step 4: Focus on the other 20 items – Put things in place to stop doing them!

Know your audience, know your team, know yourself

  • Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.

  • Ten leader attributes (Gallup)

    • Confidence

    • Delegator

    • Determination

    • Disruptor

    • Independent

    • Knowledge

    • Profitability

    • Relationship

    • Risk

    • Selling

  • The more senior you are, the more important networking is in finding new roles as you move careers

Improve yourself by the writing of others, to gain easily what they have laboured hard for Socrates

Truth Candour, conflict and the helpfulness of honesty

  • Radical Candor is important when you are thinking about the need for speed. It is radically time-saving.

  • Politics = people choose their words and actions based on how they want others to react rather than based on what they really think.

  • Bring these out into the open:

    • Elephants = big things in the room that nobody is talking about

    • Dead fish = happened a few years ago that people can’t get over

    • Vomit = something that sometimes people just need to get off their mind

    • Creative abrasion is the ability to have difficult conversations. It’s like taking sandpaper and polishing something. You have a number of diverse points of view in the same room, and everybody is riffing off each other’s ideas.

    • Disagree and Commit = ‘Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it?

  • ‘Leaders wanting to be liked’ as one of the most dangerous traps in business.  ‘It’s much more important to be trusted and respected. If people like you as well, that’s a bonus, not an objective.’

The power of the pause

  • Typically, it takes new CEOs six months to start to affect business, so resist any urge to promise results quickly.

  • Good questions to ask when joining a new company:

    • ‘What should not change or be messed with?’

    • ‘What should be changed?’

    • ‘Give me examples of bottlenecks’

    • Do you have a talent or skill you don’t get to use now in your position?’

  • Take time; don’t make time

Hire smart, fire fast

First-rate people hire first-rate people; second-rate people hire third-rate people. Leo Rosten, American writer and humorist
  • One of the most important things you can do to lead at speed is: find the right people (and keep them).

  • ‘careful of blaming the lettuce for not growing when the soil is poor’ Thich Nhât Hanh

  • Do not tolerate brilliant jerks–the cost to teamwork is too high,’ says Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix.

  • Rosten’s Law’: ‘First-rate people hire first-rate people; second-rate people hire third-rate people.’

  • I’d rather have a hole than an arsehole.’

  • If you join Zappos and don’t like it within a week, you can take a $ 4,000 bonus and leave.

  • Hire PANDAS (Uruly)

    • Positive and passionate.

    • Agile

    • Communication

    • Simplicity

    • Feedback

    • Courage

    • Respect.

    • No ego and nurturing.

    • Determined to deliver.

    • Action-oriented A + players

    • Social DNA and sense of humour.

  • ‘Hire fast walkers.’

Decide, delegate and deliver

  • Making decisions and executing decisions. Your success depends on your ability to develop speed as a habit in both.’

  • In any organization, clarity over who will make decisions and when they will be made is key. Time is wasted if this isn’t set up clearly.

  • Adopt an action bias. You will never have perfect information.

I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do Leonardo da Vinci
  • An imperfect decision on Monday is better than the 100 per cent perfect decision on Friday.

  • The Power of Doubt Approach

    • Scope: How wide is the implication of what we see? Is this trend/ this change purely enterprise-specific, industry-specific or more broadly macro-economic

    • Speed: This is about being less concerned with micro-managing pace and more about what uncertainties will dramatically affect us in a systematic and structural way.

    • Significance: Is it noise and chatter or a genuine shift in the way the world works?

  • Guiding Questions for Decisions:

    • How does the decision I’m making fit with the priorities we’ve agreed?

    • What impact will it have on people inside and outside the organization?

  • Bain RAPID ® model to identify who inputs and who decides.

RAPID®: Bain's tool to clarify decision accountability - Bain ...
Bain Rapid Decision Model
  • Steps to make a decision

    • Proposal

    • Argue

    • Agreement

    • Who will own

    • Timing

    • Vote – Decision agreement check

  • It took 600 Apple engineers less than two years to develop, debug and deploy iOS 10. Contrast that with 10,000 engineers at Microsoft that took more than five years to develop, debut and ultimately retract Vista. The difference was in the way these companies chose to construct their teams.


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