I’ve led major corporate transformations and turnarounds for decades — taking ITT and 12,000 employees through deregulation into record profits; overhauling Styrotek, a California agricultural packaging company, in 3 months during a drought. That’s the job of an Interim CEO: to parachute in, rebuild a jumpy staff’s trust and engagement, and manage profound change. It takes a unique skill set, but as I wrote in my new book, The Outside the Box Executive, extreme leadership is really leadership, just the condensed version: there are lessons for everyone.
Here are my 9 steps for saving a struggling company:
9 Steps for Saving a Struggling Company
Don’t ask permission to start making decisions and forming strategies: do it. The Board brought you in to do a job. And don’t dispatch a group of VPs to speak for you. Leading by proxy is not leading, particularly in today’s business culture, where transparency matters (for good reason).
To learn about a company’s daily operations, its staff (good and bad), and its problems and challenges, you have to get out there. Don’t hide behind your desk. Walk the halls and let everyone see you.
I recommend active listening, in which you repeat back what someone tells you, and continue that cycle until you reach common ground. It forges mutual respect, paving the way for the honest opinions and information you need for your own due diligence. While an Interim CEO draws from outside experience to set direction and strategy, listening creates the necessary knowledge base.
No CEO is an island.You’ll need a team of the best and brightest to rely on, but forge your own impressions and make your own judgment calls. That way, when someone’s not being entirely above board, you know it. That’s how I stopped a damaging game of politics at one firm: I knew the difference between reality and rumor.
Don’t focus on one aspect of a company — explore accounting, marketing, and operations; customer/product line analysis, inventory analysis, receivables, critical vendors, quality control, and customer support. Roll up your sleeves to experience it firsthand. You don’t need domain experience to helm a company, but you do need a clear sense of how it functions.
A floundering company is a dangerous behemoth: you’ll need everyone on board to get it back on its feet. As you combine your own skills and experience with the knowledge you’re gaining in the company, create a benchmark vision everyone can get behind — give them a place at the table, and they’ll be invested in its success.
Recognizing participation creates a far more fertile, motivated environment. Whether lunch, applause, a bonus, or commission, don’t miss the chance to recognize a job well done and thus inspire the whole organization. During a recent stint, the most effective solution to an inventory problem came from a young woman thinking way outside the box. I encouraged her to set up a team, they accomplished what she’d proposed, and all were rewarded. It elevated the mood of the whole company from discouraged to driven.
Go long, even if you encounter resistance — which you probably will, since short-sightedness often grounds operations in the first place and is all too easily tangled into a firm’s DNA. Thinking big means thinking of the long-term ramifications. In my experience, the quick fix (a ten percent cut in the travel budget or advertising expenses, for instance) lasts only a short while before those same expenditures return and even increase. Better to make systematically organized efforts to improve profits from the start.
“Thinking big means thinking of the long-term ramifications.” Richard Lindenmuth
Failure is an important part of any process, and it’s inevitable. Moreover, if the new workplace culture you create as interim does not include blame or punishment, your people will more likely point out issues or hitches as they happen. And failures can be useful: they reveal flaws in the system that may not apparent without a test drive. Treating missteps as part of the growth and learning process creates a far more resilient workforce — and resilience is the best kind of strength.
An Interim Executive has to be able to draw from years of experience and an array of skills that go deep. When I was tapped by the Association of Interim Executives for Styrotek, it was due to my having a long list of applicable qualifications, including ample time in the trenches. But leadership is leadership: it’s all about being present, effective, decisive, and most of all, positive.
The Outside the Box Executive