Once in a while you will draw the short straw and get an unenviable assignment. The department, assignment or the team would be in shambles. Nothing will seem right and you will feel depressed. There will be negative attitudes all around and your spirits will be dampened. The challenges will be huge and you will feel like quitting.
But, a quitter never wins and a winner never quits. As a strong leader and a motivated, positive personality, you want to turn things around.
Successful turnarounds require effective leadership qualities, courage and self-belief. They make great leadership stories and provide good lessons on how to manage difficult situations. One also learns to make hard decisions under duress.
The turnaround story of Continental Airlines under Gordon Bethune is a classic. After having ten CEOs in ten years, when Gordon took over as CEO of Continental, he had his work cut out. He built his “go forward” plan focusing on four key areas: marketing, financial, the service and the people at Continental.
But right at the outset, Gordon (literally) opened his door and made himself accessible to everyone in the company. In contrast to the CEOs before him, Gordon openly displayed transparency and showcased his fierce desire to turn things around. He did a lot more, but the initial bonus system for on-time departure, correct baggage handling and no customer complaints got the airline moving in the right direction.
Gordon worked out a bonus system for every employee at Continental: $65 dollars if the company stood first in the FAA rankings for the month for baggage handling, on-time departure and customer complaints.
The measurement was quite simple – the FAA listing at the end of the month would tell an employee whether they got the bonus or not. This was an impartial measurement and each employee knew exactly how they could achieve the bonus or miss it. Once they started achieving it, it was not about the money at all – it became the new culture. To quote Gordon, “dangling a carrot no one can reach is worse than dangling no carrot at all”. This new culture helped Continental Airlines climb on top of the FAA rankings, after they languished in the cellar for several years. “From Worst to First” is the apt title of this book.
Breaking an existing culture is usually the biggest obstacle. This takes time, strategic understanding and self-belief.
Ford Motor Corporation
Ford Motor Corporation was turned down every potential CEO they approached in the auto industry, including those of Nissan and Daimler-Benz. As a last alternative they approached Alan Mulally who was at Boeing but passed over for the CEO position there.
Once he took over, Alan faced a highly caustic culture at Ford. People protected their own departments fiercely even if that went against the company’s success. There were meetings galore where lots were discussed, but not many decisions made.
Mulally changed the meeting structure. He condensed all meetings into one, which had two parts: the business plan reviews and the special attention reviews. With a color-coded (green, yellow, red) status, clear quantification of data and a path towards a “One Ford” vision, Mulally slowly started breaking the culture at Ford. Raising funds, tweaking the product mix and other adjustments followed.
Most importantly, Mulally had a plan and started with a minor change of culture.
Mount Sinai Hospital
In contrast to major corporations Ford and Continental, a complete turnaround was effected at Mount Sinai hospital in New York. Faced with heavy fines, poor results, dwindling patients and a bad reputation, the hospital appointed a new Dean. As soon as she took over and gauged the situation, the Dean put in place a simple rule. The Dean demanded that any patient visiting the emergency room be seen within 90 seconds by a nurse. This was a very small target, easily achievable and had high visibility. This initiative required everyone’s involvement and was communicated widely. It caught on like wildfire and weekly measurements were put in place.
The participation in this seemingly small activity by the whole hospital staff was brought about by the new Dean. She simply changed the culture. Once the staff experienced this new environment, the culture began to permeate into other areas in the hospital operations. Other activities started getting measured and then controlled. Slowly the reputation improved and patients started expressing satisfaction. Beds were no longer empty, finances came under control and the general work environment improved.
The Dean had a plan and started with a small activity that required team participation, was achievable and could be measured.
“10 ways to make a solid first impression” contains a list of activities on how one can approach a new assignment or job role.
From the above three stellar turnaround examples, here’s a list identifying the optimal activity as part of your 100-day plan:
a. Consider the broad strategy within which your department functions.
b. Look at past history and initiatives. Consider what worked well, and what did not work well. Talk to people and get their viewpoints. At the same time, assess their personalities to judge who could be well-suited to execute your plan.
c. Make a list of all the issues and decide on the “low-hanging” fruit to pluck. Pick something that needs everyone’s involvement. Publicize the activity and get everyone engaged.
d. Also ensure that the activity is in line with company strategy and also is objectively measurable. As in the Continental example, the perfect measurement (though not always possible) would be a third-party, unbiased opinion or report.
e. The task should be sizeable and challenging, but not too complex and not too long-term. The carrot you dangle should be reachable.
f. Draw up a 100-day plan. Set up milestones and work on execution. Face up to the situation and show that you care for not only the people but also for the task at hand.
Do share your thoughts on any such plans that have worked for you.