When presented with a low-performing organization the first thing you do is put out any fires that are flaring. Usually, low performing organizations are experts at firefighting. It’s all they have — endless urgent problems — so many teams get really good at living in an emergent world. That likely means you have a leadership team that are really good firefighters, but not fire preventers. Once you have a gap in the action, it’s time to assess your leaders. You will have to make changes.
Change is coming
The leadership team that got you where you are is not going to be the leadership team to get you out. They don’t all have to go, but you have to build a team that you trust to focus on growth and crisis prevention rather than crisis response. In order to build a solid leadership team, you’ll have to do three things:
- Roll up your sleeves and get deep with problem teams.
- Bring in people you trust with the right skills and experience.
- Avoid creating a leadership team of finger puppets.
Sometimes you’re the right person for the job.
Deeply understanding the source of problems is the best way to visualize solutions. It’s also the best way to assess the quality of your leaders. You can’t get deep on everything, delegation & prioritization is a critical skill for every leader, but you will have to pick the 20% of the team that drives the most value and focus your efforts there.
One of the teams that worked for me was responsible for master data management. Customer data was the most important of their responsibilities and one process was plagued with quality issues. Not only did the team have difficulty running the process but it was apparent they couldn’t explain the problem.
I brought them together along with their leaders and we spent the better part of a week watching the data, analyzing errors and improving quality and throughput. Personal attention to important work focuses people’s minds. For me, the most important part of this exercise was seeing the leaders in action. I quickly knew who the keepers, who had to go, and what organizational changes needed to be made to support improved performance. Sometimes the only way to get that knowledge is to be on the ground working the problem.
Who are your friends?
I’ve found in every turnaround situation I can usually think of someone I’ve worked with in the past who would be great in a particular role. The benefit of having a cadre of people with the right skills and experience is that you’ll be able to land people who can immediately get traction. They’ll be people you trust. They’ll be people who know how to work with you.
Three years ago when I was presented with a challenging operational situation, I needed a detail-driven operations manager to work the problem. I had recently worked with just such a person and got him reassigned to the team. He quickly built a rapport with the existing team (no doubt helped by his relationship with me), went deep and quickly built momentum in the right direction.
Not only did I get the performance that I desired, but I didn’t have to spend a lot of time getting deep there myself. My efforts were multiplied because someone I knew and trusted, someone who knew and trusted me, could be let loose to make things better. Moving trusted leaders into important positions is a change accelerant.
Of course, the danger in all this is that you will create a sea of finger puppets.
Beware the Finger Puppets!
It’s easy to spot these people from a distance. Smart, aggressive, with opinions that mirror those above them. Likable for so many reasons save for the fact that they rarely utter a novel idea. Everything is dogma.
At the center of these people is a charismatic leader that doesn’t tolerate dissension. In many cases, the pressure for alignment isn’t overt. It’s simply that the leader has assembled a set of personalities that seem to crave alignment. So they align.
When you get to a certain level in an organization you realize that much of your success is not based upon your own intellect and efforts but it is enabled by the intellect and efforts of others. Your role is to assemble a team that can bring diversity and creativity to the business and technical challenges you face.
Avoid being a puppet master. Choose people you know and trust when necessary, but don’t build an echo chamber of your own ideas. It will be a comfortable place to be, just not a particularly effective in the long run. The fact that finger puppets exist is bad enough. The fact that we create them is worse. Don’t create finger puppets.
A sustainable future
The right leadership team is going to make you look smart, is going to drive value for the business and is going to attract and retain awesome talent. Moving the organization from a crisis management footing to a sustainable platform for growth is job #2 for the turnaround leader (#1 being putting the fires out). Having a great leadership team allows you to make this transition. Start evaluating your leaders from day one. Start making changes as soon as it’s safe to do so.