Spend any amount of time around horses, and two things become immediately clear. First, a horse doesn't give his trust to just any cowboy in a ten-gallon hat. You might wear spurs, but if your horse isn't confident in your ability to lead, the ride's going to be short-lived.
And second, each time you interact with your horse, whether you mean to or not, you are teaching him something -- about who you are, what makes you tick, what you expect of him, and what you'll do to help him satisfy those expectations.
Leading a company through a period of do-or-die change is a lot like riding a horse, and those turnaround architects who know how to establish trust, consistently communicate their vision, and harness the power of their team have a better chance at riding out the ups and downs and arriving at their desired destination than those who don't.
There are no guarantees, of course (you don't have to look far to find examples of change agents who have failed), but you can give yourself a leg up. If you've shouldered the tremendous responsibility of taking the reins in a turnaround, the following five guidelines will go a long way toward helping you get where you're going.
Know where you're headed
Every roadmap for success must include a plan for getting into and out of change. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? You'd be surprised at how many executives cut corners when it comes to defining what their mission is and where they're headed, both personally and professionally. I call this defining your conditions of satisfaction, and throughout my career, I've made three conditions of satisfaction my barometer for measuring success. For me, it's all about growing professionally, making money, and having fun.
As an architect of change, it's imperative you take the time to define your own conditions of satisfaction, and then share them with your team. Because it's only when the whole company owns this common goal that you can be sure there will never be any second guessing about how the leadership team feels and where it wants to go. The flip side of this is ambiguity, and ambiguity causes fear. Allow fear to set in, and you've cultivated the soil for politics and personalities to get in the way of the goal.
So set your conditions, share them with your organization, and then be prepared to stand by them, draw on them to get over any fear of change, and use them as a springboard to take massive, targeted action.
Take stock of the situation, beginning with the mood of the company
I don't care how amazing you are as a leader, how good you look in your suit, how impressive your list of accomplishments. If you can't improve the mood of the people you're charged with leading, you will fail. From the boardroom to the mailroom, everyone on the team has to buy into your vision for change, and they've got to believe that their best days are ahead of them.
And the mood change needs to come quickly.
Don't believe me? Leave your team "searching for the elephant" (cowboy speak to describe someone who's forever riding over the hill looking for something that's not there), and you might as well hang it up. Because if your people get it into their heads there's no "there" there -- that there's nothing worth striving for -- they will have zero motivation to support you in your leadership.
If what you're proposing is going to work, you'll need your entire team to be in a good place about where they're going and how they're going to get there. Accomplish this, and you'll be confident that every person in your organization can and will sacrifice equally to reach the goal.
Eduardo Conrado, Motorola's senior vice president of marketing and IT, is a great example of someone who knows how important it is that everyone drink the company Kool-Aid. Today, after successfully separating out Motorola's B2B and B2C business, Conrado's customer-centric B2B marketing strategy has proven to be one of the company's biggest profit centers -- a turnaround that could not have been possible without the support of his team.
Setting the right mood could be as simple as slapping a fresh coat of paint on the walls or treating the team to Happy Hour on Fridays. Or it could require letting go of the naysayers and those who aren't cut out for the job. Whatever you do, make "whatever it takes" your new mood mantra, and you'll be well on your way.
Grab the reins, and create some tension
Once you have defined how you'll measure success, and you have improved the mood of the company, you're ready to ride. But unless you're also ready to create a little bit of tension (OK, a lot of tension), you're not going to make forward progress.
Ask a horse to walk to the left, and he might twitch his ears and flick his tail (or ignore you altogether), but unless it's his idea to go left, you're just watching prairie grass grow. But shorten up the reins on the left, and OK. Now you're getting somewhere.
As a change agent, once you've taken the reins, your task is to go in search of problems. Find out what's not working, where the breakdowns in systems and communications are, or where you're short-staffed or carrying dead weight, and do what needs to be done. Will you get push back? Absolutely. Will there be grumbling within the herd? Maybe. Who cares? This isn't a beauty contest. And it's not a democracy. It's CPR for a company or a brand that's coding, and there's no time to waste.
A little desperado goes a long way
When Marissa Mayer was brought in to resuscitate Yahoo, one of the most notable changes she implemented as CEO was to get rid of telecommuting. The uproar that ensued -- from the media to her employees -- was fast and furious, but Mayer stood firm in her decision. She knew that Yahoo was bleeding money, and telecommuting was costing the company dearly. In true desperado ("outlaw") fashion, she broke the "rules," stepped outside the lines, and unapologetically did what she knew needed to be done.
That's what I call "get on board, or get out" leadership. And I applaud it. Because right or wrong, with Mayer, you know who's boss. Does that mean everything she does will work? Probably not. But I tell you one thing: When the bombs went off at the Boston Marathon, people turned to Twitter for minute-by-minute updates, and they turned to Yahoo for in-depth news.
Not CNN. Not MSNBC. Yahoo. That says volumes, right there.
Now. I'm not advocating recklessness, carelessness, or any other kind of "lessness" that comes from making irresponsible decisions. But when you're making massive changes, you're going to have to take some risks -- and then push like heck in order to drive those changes into place. Know this going in, and your job will be much easier.
Have the courage to change horses in the middle of the stream -- especially if the horse doesn't swim
Have you ever heard the expression, "Don't change horses in the middle of the stream?" Arguably practical advice, right? But when you're blazing trails and making seat-of-your-pants decisions, you're going to make mistakes. And sometimes, those mistakes are going to demand you turn on a dime and make a snap-judgment call that's anything but practical.
I imagine this is something Sherilyn McCoy goes through on a daily basis.
McCoy took the reigns as CEO of Avon in April of 2012 (with no direct sales experience) to revive a company carrying a mountain of debt (more than $3 billion worth), and legal and organizational problems that continue to threaten stock prices and sales growth.
Will McCoy be able to turn Avon around? Your guess is as good as mine. But here's what I know: Just like her direct sales reps, she'll have to ring a lot of doorbells to get where she's going. And along the way, she's going to make mistakes -- maybe lots of them -- as she determines the best strategy for the company. We all do. That's the nature of this beast. And the highways and byways of success are littered with the remains of companies that tried turnarounds and failed. But mistakes are a part of the game. So be prepared to change strategy -- and then change it again -- and you'll improve your chances of success.
Any cowboy worth his salt will tell you that getting out in front of the herd can be a lonely experience. The same can be said of change agents charged with the monumental task of leading their company from failure to success.
But if you have even the smallest of prayers of making it through, of turning things around and taking a company that's barely breathing and infusing it with new life, you're going to need the full faith and support of your team. Use these five guidelines to get you moving, grow a thick skin, and jump in.
If you're ready to get started, I suggest you hold onto your hat -- it's going to be a wild ride.
Jeffrey Hayzlett is a bestselling author and global business celebrity.
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"A cowgirl and her horse as the sun sets" image via Shutterstock.