One of the most common questions I've been asked in my 40 years in business is this: "Bill, lots of people would be happy to become millionaires, but you made a billion dollars starting from scratch. What's your secret?"
It's actually a long story, and my autobiography is coming out soon. The short answer is: I've long had a need for speed.
I don't mean the driving kind or the white-powder kind. I mean the "there's no time to waste" kind. How fast have I gone? At one point, my company grew at the rate of 15,000 percent per year, for four years in a row. Let's examine several principles for reaching your business destination quickly without crashing and burning before you get there.
- Know why you're moving fast.
It's not good enough to say you want to move fast in business because you simply "live life in the fast lane." That's a romantic image, but the most successful businesspeople follow cold, rational strategy instead of macho images.
Wayne Gretzky became the greatest-ever hockey player by being able to see where the puck was going to be, not where it was. In the late '70s and again in the '80s I did a Gretzky: I noticed that the supply-demand picture in my industry would change drastically, and I saw it a few months before my competitors did. Because I was far smaller than they were at the time, I had no time to lose. I lined up as much financing as I possibly could and bought assets like there was no tomorrow. If you see a fleeting opportunity, consider doing the same.
- Don't expect a decent map.
Maybe you can see where you want to go, but what if you can't make out the path to get you there? Welcome to my world. I find myself regularly explaining to people that I know precisely where I want to go but have no clue how I'll get there. Doing Wall Street's first-ever securitized financing of credit-card debt was like that. By stringing together a series of "what if" statements, I helped myself and my team to put aside "how it's always been done" thinking, and that allowed us to string together possible or even improbable elements. Our speed allowed us to test these avenues quickly and find the best path.
- Accept roughness.
Engineers tell their clients they can have any two of the following: fast, cheap or good. That principle is true in other industries, too. I'm a pretty demanding boss, but when I'm really going for speed, I make it clear that I'd much rather see a very rough draft this afternoon than a perfect presentation a week from Wednesday.
- Explain yourself.
You may be mentally prepared for the speed you need, but your staff may not be. After all, you see the big picture and have the most invested in the outcome. At the same time, you'll get to your destination faster if you have the willing energy and creativity of your team behind you.
Once I had to let a key executive go, and to make matters worse, my Wall Street lenders were fond of him. I gathered my staff of about 3,000 people and explained that as hard as we were working, we needed to pour it on to prove to Wall Street that we would not skip a beat after the executive's departure. They rose to the occasion and we blew away our goals. It probably helped that I promised to mud-wrestle a guy in Vegas if we made our numbers. What can you do to galvanize support behind you?
- Lighten the load.
We all have long lists of projects, and we like to think that we're more or less at capacity. The problem is that dropping a big project into the fast lane can mean diverting lots of focus and resources. Don't make the mistake of just adding that new project on top of everything else. It's your responsibility to determine what gets delayed or dropped in the interest of that new focus.
- Put energy back into the system regularly.
If you don't keep pedaling hard, the whole apparatus has a way of bogging down. Be on the lookout for what Seth Godin calls "The Dip," where the novelty has worn off the project, the objective is not yet in your grasp, and hard slogging has set in. If the goal is still worthy, then re-commit yourself to it and start back at the top of this list for the actions you need to take yet again--such as accepting roughness, explaining yourself and so on.
When you reach your goal, be sure to take your foot off the gas so your organization can regenerate and also enjoy the new, higher vistas. It will enable you to do it once more, the next time a worthy goal rears its head.