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Face The Challenge - Sample Section, Chapter 23

Chapter Twenty-Three - Turnarounds

"Turnarounds" reviews the wide range of negative business conditions, misdirected attitudes, and operational issues confronting Leaders who are running or conducting business turnarounds, and how they can better maximize their impact to turn the tide of a troubled organization's fortunes through improved business leadership. Turnarounds also provides extensive leadership insight on employee attitudes when running or conducting a business turnaround.


23.1 "Single Step."  I was a twenty-year old, summer relief-manager at a chain-restaurant location that was experiencing the worst fiscal performance in the region.  On my third day while I was eating lunch and contemplating my rather bleak situation, a waitress suggested to me that if the lever-operated water faucet at the dining room service station flowed faster, it would save the wait-staff a considerable amount of time.  I agreed.  And immediately after finishing my sandwich, I conducted an investigation, removed the cover plate, adjusted the set-screw, and tested the results.  The water blasted out of the faucet with such force that it blew the ice and water out of the glass and gave me a rather unexpected shower.  However, after her laughing subsided, an hour or so later, an absolutely wonderful chain of events occurred.  She told everybody!  During the next two weeks I was inundated with over 100 suggestions, large and small, on how to improve the restaurant; and which I implemented if at all feasible.  The entire crew (though admittedly minus a significant portion of the original cast) was also quite responsive to my directives and instruction.  We ended that summer with the second highest sales growth rate and third highest profit margin out of twenty-eight restaurants.  Though I never used the buzzwords or truly comprehended the motivational forces at work then, I was totally hooked on: "empowerment," "open-book management," teams, listening, "continuing improvement," total quality management, and participative leadership nearly forty years ago and I have never looked back.  And while my leadership profile has always remained consistently demanding and somewhat autocratic, I have repeated this secret "success formula" many times, albeit, without the shower.  Twenty-five years later, I successfully reengineered how my region of a consumer products company operated based substantially on seven hours worth of input received from an exceptionally well applied and vocal customer service representative during my initial orientation.  Similarly, both the road to a more successful horizon and "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" (Confucius).  And a new Leader's ability to identify and resolve the chronic problems that have eluded both his or her less able predecessors or recently acquired Subordinates is frequently his or her most valuable asset.  However, more intellectually mundane activities such as bringing in additional resources, reorganizing existing operations, placing more capable Subordinates in motion, further training, or carefully monitoring their progress may ultimately prove to be a turnaround Leader's most important contribution toward improving the organization's general welfare.  For more often than not, the Leader's predecessors have allowed the situation to deteriorate to such an extent through either neglect or a lack of talent that they are no longer capable of instilling confidence or motivating their Subordinates to perform at the desired level of proficiency.  Thus the greater promise offered by a turnaround Leader over his or her failed hierarchical forebears is the expertise, energy, leadership diligence, motivational skills, and problem-solving abilities that are necessary to extricate the corporate financial vehicle from the obsolescence ditch and to put it on the "greenback" road once again.  For as Cyril N. Parkinson (Parkinson, PL p88) astutely observed, the single most important step that Leaders can usually take is to adopt the military drillmaster's intolerant attitude toward failure or accepting excuses for substandard performance; though they are also well-advised to eliminate the shouting and other demeaning behaviors that are so frequently associated with this leadership stereotype.  As it is the artful and prudent implementation of this perspective that will determine whether turnaround Leaders eventually surmount all the barriers in their path or fade after their initial breakthrough.


(A) Turnaround Leaders must have a passion for detail and for unearthing those seemingly unimportant, inconsequential, minute particulars whose improvement can translate into increased operational proficiency.  And again, a Leader's time is advisedly well spent identifying chronic performance issues and creatively directing his or her time and resources toward resolving them; though not to the extent of personally managing each of these issues or getting so bogged down with the specifics of a particular problem that such activities prove detrimental to properly supervising his or her other responsibilities on a broader scale.


(B) Consequently, the issues that turnaround Leaders choose to personally manage must be viewed by the majority of their Subordinates as being significant enough to warrant their direct intervention.  And initially, astute problem-slayers may correctly feel that it is necessary to give tediously specific directions as to what they want accomplished in a particular area even to the extent of providing elementary in-depth instruction under certain circumstances.  But if they must continue to give such an inordinate amount of direction at every turn of the problem-solving road, it is a solid indication that their Subordinates are in dire need of further development or upgrading; or that they need to broaden their supervisory perspective and learn to delegate greater responsibility.


(C) Leaders can also use their involvement in a new project, sales program, policy implementation, or chronic issue to establish an analytical guide for their Subordinates to resolve various operating problems on their own.  Thus it is not unusual for turnaround Leaders to take an active and time-consuming role in the "what" and "how" of projects that can serve as a model for the problem-solving format they want their Subordinates to emulate; with the ultimate aim of achieving significant time efficiencies on similar issues further down the road.  Assuming that their Subordinates are properly trained and possess the necessary technical expertise, Leaders should then concentrate their energies on the organizational, developmental, implementation, or follow-through activities associated with the problem; as these are the functional elements where failing middle or upper-echelon supervisors are most likely to be found wanting.  But if the Leader's rank-and-file or supervisory personnel lack the required training or technical expertise to achieve satisfactory operating results, these deficiencies must be corrected forthwith as a prerequisite to addressing other primary issues; for Subordinates must first be capable of walking before being expected to run the high hurdles.

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Copyright 2006 by H. Garrett Hayward from Face the Challenge: The Leader's Success Handbook