The challenge has been given to you.  You have been given an assignment that requires you to repair a department, function or project that is broken.

Commonly called turnaround or “fix-it” assignments they come in all shapes and sizes.  What they do have in common is a situation, often quite dire, where your company needs a different leadership approach to get results back on track. Often what you are facing is:

Poor morale, engagement is weak.
Employees exhibiting a wide range of feelings from despair to outright hostility to (hopefully) a few who are pleased with your appointment.
Poor relationships with customers.
Financial losses or the department’s budget is out of control.
That the word on the street is that it is not a good place to work.
Compliance with organizational policies is weak.

In my work in executive development I have found leaders have committed any of the following mistakes which have caused problems for them later in the assignment:

Initially leading in a dominating/dictatorial manner

This may seem like the logical thing to do, after all it was poor leadership that got the department in trouble in the first place. This style will, however, work against you over time. The first day, week and month are critical for you to set the right climate to get the organization on the right track. The staff already knows whats going on and why they brought you in. While a very few staff members will be in denial or just plain clueless, the more savvy ones will be quite aware of what is going on. Alienating those (probably few) higher performers early on with a dictatorial approach will make it harder for you to get them on your side once you decide how you will tackle the problems within the department. The others will see this leadership style as punishing.

I recommend instead:  Calmly lay out the facts as you see them. Do not lay blame. Explain the process that you will undertake to assess the current situation and then tell them you will develop plans to improve the department’s results. Do describe what you see as the significant areas that will need change but don’t get specific. (That will come later after your assessment.) Stress your belief in them and that together you will be able to fix the problems. Also have an open door policy when it comes to ideas the staff might have to improve things.

Don’t criticize the existing staff

Some leaders mistake criticizing for motivation. I had an executive at a company where I worked who had parachuted in from another company to “fix” our division say, “I wouldn’t have been asked to take on this assignment if you guys weren’t all screwed up. But I am here to fix that.”  You can imagine the reaction the staff had to that. The slight goodwill that had been created when we heard that a successful executive from a highly-regarded company was taking over completely evaporated.

I recommend instead: Explain that you were brought in because the department will need to do things differently. Tell them that how things got this way is not the point. That everyone should look forward not backwards. State that while they may not have caused many of the problems you are asking them to now be part of the solution.

Any negative feedback should be left to one-on-one conversations that you will inevitably have with the staff.

Creating and communicating too many goals

Let’s face it, your management wants results. Eyes are on you. You will need to develop goals and metrics that will achieve the desired result. It is easy to develop goals for every aspect of the business. After all there may be many things that need to be fixed and setting goals for each of them makes sense. Set too many goals and your staff will potentially feel demoralized, defeated. Also doing this will feel overwhelming to them and will create at best frenzied efforts in myriad directions.

I recommend instead: Pick no more than 3-4 areas  to set goals and then prioritize them. Start with ones that are easier to achieve. When they are accomplished it will improve morale and help build the staff’s esprit de corp and belief in themselves. Staff report-outs on goals are really key, rather than have them be passive recipients of the results. Make that process simple and rewarding. Develop a color coded system for how well goals have been met.

A special note: In some circumstances there are areas that need immediate fixing regardless of the other goals that are important. Areas such as safety or shrinkage reduction, or error prevention must be tackled immediately and you should explain that to them.

Spending too much time on those that don’t perform

If you have heard of the term A, B and C players, here I am referring to the C players. Interestingly, through my work in executive development, I have discovered that many managers make the mistake of focusing disproportionate effort on try to improve the performance of their C players. They hope that their efforts will propel the C players to become at least B players. This rarely if ever occurs. Better to cut your losses with them and manage them out.

I recommend instead: Put your coaching efforts into the A players. They will not only deliver results for you but will also act as excellent role models for the rest of the staff.

Fix the little things

You may be compelled to create and solely focus on BHAGs in order to propel the department to quickly achieve results. It is important that in parallel you work on fixing what may appear as minor aspects of the work environment. By doing so it replaces old bad work habits with more effective ones. Examples of small things are:

Requiring staff to tidy up their workstations.
Sprucing up the work environment e.g. repainting the office.
Replacing equipment or furniture that is broken or operating at less than full capacity.
Making break rooms inviting with snacks, drinks and other comfort items.
Acting as a conduit for staff who are frustrated with getting help from other company functions by going to bat for them and using your influence to fix annoying operating practices.

A final note: Not representing what you want

The need to role model the new behaviors expected of your staff is critical. In other words, don’t lead like you always have. Your leadership behaviors may have worked well in your last assignment, but every turnaround situation requires different leadership styles. This may require you to adjust your thinking and stretch somewhat . If you ever expect new behaviors in others to take hold you will need to demonstrate them consistently and repeatedly.

If you can avoid these mistakes and instead focus your efforts on repairing things you will start to gain the support of nearly all of your staff. Once that happens, watch out, their energy will be unleashed and you will be amazed at the results that can be achieved.

Good luck!