I have often heard many “business experts” discuss how leadership methods and business principles in one area or industry simply do not apply to another industry. They argue, “I am a non-profit, the guidelines used by ‘for profit’ companies simply do not apply.” Another one is “My industry is so unique that we have to come up with our own set of guidelines. I must respectfully disagree. While the industries or businesses differ in what they do, I have discovered Ten rules or steps or guideline or principles (call them what you want) that worked for me in turning around six different organizations.
After thirty years, I came to the realization that similarities between organizations in crisis, be it a business, an industry, a government entity, a non-profit, an education system, a church and even an athletic program are strikingly similar. All are failing but are unwilling or unable to try new approaches. All become very defense when a new person comes in and tries to initiate change. The majority of the current staff says they are open to hearing the new plan, but will not make a real effort to help execute the plan. They would rather pay lip service to the plan and stand on the sidelines and watch the new plan fail so they can say “I knew it wouldn’t work.” The bottom line for organizations in crisis is this – What you are doing and the way you are doing it is not working. That is why new people are being brought into the organization.
I had the opportunity to work with Jim McLaughlin the head coach of the women’s volleyball program at the University of Washington. This program had it “rock bottom.” They had finished last or near last in their conference for several consecutive years. The former coach had resigned two weeks before the start of a new season. The program was clearly in crisis. The athletic director was able to convince a Jim McLaughlin to take over a job that was described as “Becoming the captain of the Titanic after it hit the ice burg.” The athletic director had accomplished the first of my Ten guidelines.
1. Find the right leader
This is often easier said than done. How do you know if you have the right leader? Initially you don’t. You do your due diligence, set your goals and requirements, conduct interviews, check reference and make an informed decision. In other words you take a leap of faith.
2. The leader must clearly articulate the vision
If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll never know if you get there. Every leader must have a vision or a plan. Everyone in the organization must know that vision and make it his or her own. The more concise the vision the better. Coach McLaughlins’s vision at the University of Washington was three points
Graduate every player
Finish in the top three in the PAC-12 every year. This gives the team the opportunity to compete for the national title
Prepare players for the U.S. national team
3. The leader must inspire people to believe
People become inspired when they see a consistent positive movement. The leader must stay the course by continuously articulating the vision and pointing out the “small steps” that are occurring. Consistency in the message and the method is critical. At Washington the team was playing with passion and intensity. The fans and the team saw the improvement and started to believe.
4. The leader must clearly define what he/she wants to do and what pieces are needed to get there.
When you take over an organization one of the first steps is to take inventory of the existing staff, products, processes, procedures etc…The leader must quickly determine the strengths and weaknesses in each area and have the courage to make the changes that will continue to move the program forward.
At the Washington, a new defensive specialist was being added to college volleyball. The goal of this position is to keep the ball from hitting the floor (called a dig), which prevents the other team from scoring. Two returning players believed they had the inside track for this position. The Coach McLaughlin had recruited a freshman who won the position. The premise was simple. It we can make it more difficult for the opponent to score, we improve our chances of winning. Starting a true freshman in a critical role, was a courageous step but one that was needed to get the organization to where it needed to be.
5. The leader must select the right people and put them in the best position to succeed.
The most difficult task in turning around an organization is evaluating and or replacing the people you inherit. These people were there before the new leader arrived and obviously have some vested interest in the organizations success. Hopefully most of the inherited people will buy into the program and are willing to change. Those that change can be valuable assets. Those who refuse have to be let go. This is concept Jim Collins described in his book Good to Great. Mr. Collins described it as getting the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus. Most leaders will say the most important asset in any organization is the employees. This is not really the case. We discovered the most valuable asset is the right people. The right people understand and accept the vision. The right people are motivated and driven. The right people are both ready and able to execute. The wrong people do none of these things. The wrong people lower standards. The wrong people drive away the right people.
At Washington Jim McLaughlin had a system. He needed people at each job who were willing to accept their role (job description). He selected (recruited) people who understood that the collective contribution of like-minded people would produce a result greater than what could be achieved alone. He often passed on a more talented person if that person was more interested in his/her individual success rather than that of the organization.
6. The leader must focus on details and training.
Once the leader starts getting the right people on the bus, the next step is to make sure everyone knows not only what to do but how and most important, why to do it. Many leaders call this falling into a routine; I prefer to call it finding your stride. Consistency is now the key. Constant repetition or practice must occur. The leader at times seems like a broken record. Some people call this having a mantra. The leader must constantly preach three things:
This is what we do
This is how we do it
This is why we do what we do
At Washington this was accomplished by the mantra “There are no small things in volleyball. Everything we do is important and has a purpose.”
7. The leader must document everything; the organization must operate without key people present.
Far too many organizations rely on word of mouth or the company grapevine to establish processes and procedures. This works if your organization is small with little to no turnover and people interact with each other daily. Many companies in crisis wanted to avoid creating a bureaucracy particularly if they came from large stagnant bureaucratic organizations. For many companies I heard the term “flat organization.” We have someone in the organization who knows what to do when a situation arises. That raises the question, what if the person who knows the answer isn’t there? Does the operation stop? Do you wait for the person to return in a day or two? Having a plan as simple as an instruction manual that is reviewed frequently allows the organization to address and resolve issues quickly. In short people know what to do.
At Washington every step and procedure was detailed and documented. Little was left to chance. They created written practice plans, game plans, training plans, travel plans, meal plans, position plans, recruiting plans, official and unofficial visit plans, home visit plans etc… Every day the white board was filled with the specific plan for that day. Failure to plan is planning to fail.
8. The leader must constantly review all aspects of the operation making adjustments as needed to stay on course.
The only constant in life is change. Truly great leaders constantly evaluate themselves. Once they have a good sense of what the market is doing and what opportunities the market is offering, they must have the courage to change. A prime example is Walgreen’s. At one time food service, (soda fountain), was highly profitable. As then CEO Charles R. “Cork” Walgreen projected forward he saw no role for food service. Over five years he eliminated food service and focused on convenient locations and wide product availability. Today we find Walgreen stores at nearly every major intersection.
In 2004, Washington went to the volleyball Final Four. While they did not win, the vast majority of the team was returning the following year. Projecting forward, Coach McLaughlin made three major changes.
He replaced the staring middle blocker, a senior, with a physically gifted but very inexperienced sophomore.
He brought in an assistant coach whose specialty was coaching how to block at the net.
He moved his three time All American to a new position on the right side.
He knew his team was good enough to return to the Final Four, but unless they improved their blocking and generated more scoring from the right side they would have trouble beating Nebraska. The adjustments paid off handsomely. The young sophomore became a force at the net becoming an All American, and the team’s blocking went from a weakness to a major strength. Washington won the 2005 national championship sweeping Nebraska for the title.
9. The leader must continue to bring in people that are better than the ones already in place.
How and why do you find better people once you have achieved success? The answer is fairly basic. If you figured out how to become better, so will your competition. Many great leaders become more nervous when things are going well. As hard as it is to reach a high level of success, it is even harder to maintain. Success also brings competitors attempting to raid your top people. It is critical to continue to raise the requirements and expectations to attract more of the right people.
At Washington, the volleyball program went from last place in the PAC-10 to the Elite 8 and three consecutive Final Fours including one national championship in five years. Some of the best student athletes in the world were now interested in coming to Washington. A player from the 2001 team said to me, “The transformation of this program happened so quick it is beyond belief. Most of the girls I played with in 2001 would not make this team.
10. The leader cannot lose sight of the goal.
As a leader, the worst thing you can do is relax when your organization is doing well. At times success breeds apathy and complacency. A leader must guard against the attitude “We got to where we wanted now we can take it easy.” I will never forget what a speaker at a turnaround management conference in New Orleans once said: “We worked so hard to pull our company from the brink of disaster. We were able to convince the staff that we had the right plan and the right vision. As things started to improve, I noticed complacency had begun. The attention to detail was not as intense. We started to fall back into some bad habits. I saw it, but I guess I started to believe our own press releases and didn’t move quickly enough, and we found ourselves back in danger.”
Washington continued to have laser like focus. Over his 14 year tenure his teams reached the NCAA tournament 13 straight years, the eighth-longest active streak. In addition to a national title, Washington produced four NCAA Final Four appearances, three national players of the year, three Pacific-12 Conference titles, 17 players who combined for 34 American Volleyball Coaches Association All-America awards, nine CoSIDA Academic All-America scrolls and 58 all-Pac-12 awards.
I think we can safely say that the turnaround principles described here are not limited to for profit businesses. With the right leader, the rules can be applied to any type or size of business of organization. So if your business or organization is at a cross road give these rules a try. They are not easy. They will test and challenge you in ways you could never imagine, but in the end they work. Give me a call. I will be happy to help your where I can.