The fire is out. Now what?

In Turnaround by Stephen Zakur0 Comments

I suppose there are times that you’re hired to lead a new organization where a competent, well-loved leader has left you with a gem that only needs to be polished twice a month to retain its luster. Of course, there are other times, most times in fact, when you come into a position where it’s clear that improvements need to be made. Sometimes it’s worse, far worse. You fight the fires and the crisis has passed. Now, what?

Once the fires have been extinguished, you now have more and more blank spaces on your calendar. Your thoughts begin to wander well beyond the next urgent conference call. This is the time that I return my thoughts to building the long-term sustainable capabilities of the team.

  1. Does the organization structure provide the right alignment of people, skills, and processes to be effective in the long-run? Often legacy organization structures are left in place during a crisis to ensure some continuity in management and process. Other times short-term changes are made to connect things that need to work better until the fire is out. So now comes the time to evaluate the structure. Does it work for you, for your stakeholders and will it work for the person who comes after you?
  2. Where are the gaps in your leadership team? I assume if there are any poor performers they’re either already gone or you’ve got a short list for replacement. The question now becomes, what experience, skills, and styles created the mess in the first place and how can you fix that. I’ve observed in the past that once the fire is out, efirefighterspecially where there have been serial blazes, we forget to replace the arsonists. Sometimes it was the guy or gal before you, but that’s not usually the whole story. Evaluate your leaders.
  3. Where are the gaps in your management system? It is rare that someone will knowingly apply gasoline to the fire. It’s more likely that your predecessor was blind to a risk until it was too late. What are your blind spots? This is the time that I return to my management system — the series of meetings, reports, and measurements — to look for improvements. It’s also a great time to begin thinking about advanced analytics applied to operational problems. Getting an outside perspective is especially helpful in this evaluation.
  4. What are the key messages for my organization and what forums will be used to communicate? Everyone who works for you wants to know what’s next too. Most times much of what you’re doing going forward is molding the culture of the organization to a new reality. So, develop simple, consistent messages and deliver them through the right channels. Town hall meetings, conference calls, and social media are all methods and should be used in concert to drive consistent messages within the organization.
  5. What informal networks are available to use to drive change? This is the area where I continue to need development. While it’s natural for a leader to want to drive the messaging for the organization there are many informal networks that can help with this. Meeting people one-on-one and through round tables, especially with top performers, can help you tap into these informal networks.
You should feel good about having the crisis behind you. You should take the time to enjoy those open spaces on your calendar once things are running smoothly — I don’t blame anyone for enjoying the fruits of their labor — but then it’s time to get back to work and drive real, sustainable change within the organization.
About the Author

Stephen Zakur


Steve Zakur is a technology and operations executive who transforms organizations into digital leaders using agile methods for both software development and business execution.

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