Quickly: Lessons from the
World of Turnarounds
By MILTON A. PARISSIS
n the world of turnarounds where
businesses can get into trouble, the
worst enemy is never the lack of
options, resources or even funds. Its
time. Yes, time. Always. Guaranteed.
Why is that? Because you can’t make it, buy
it, or trade it. If you are lucky you might
stretch it, but the greater the velocity of a
business either up or down, the more
difficult it becomes.
Everything a CEO does during periods of
intense stress is magnified and highly
charged. Critical decisions need to be made
now. What you’ve normally done in a month,
you need to do in a day. You need results
quickly and everyone is watching.
The turnaround space has many lessons to
teach businesses, because this unique forum
focuses on the “root causes” that critically
impact a business. Not the fluff, the “nice to
have”, or “the bragging rights”. Its about
getting to what really matters and acting on
it. There is no time for the latest theories or
best practices. The acid test is: Did it work?
If it worked its good, if it didn’t, too bad.
So, lets consider sustainable leadership of a
business within this context. How do you get
it? Hold on to it and sustain it? Here are the
salient lessons from the trenches of the
turnaround world that could save you pain,
time and money, irrespective of the state of
There are four key steps to quickly establish
leadership within a business. They are:
• Understanding the basics of human nature,
• Knowing how to build trust with your
• Quickly implementing changes, and
• Sustaining the momentum.
Now imagine that you are the CEO of a
distressed business. There are rumours.
Sales are declining. Customers are complaining. Suppliers are asking question, and yes,
your staff are looking for their next job. At
the very best, they are “worried”. How do you
win their support? How do you inspire
confidence and lead your team to a better
The answer lies in an ability to quickly
establish a sense of confidence. Its often
easier said than done. That said, if you are
able to inspire confidence and lead people in
the “distressed space,” imagine what you will
be able to accomplish within your business.
So where do you start? What are the salient
leadership lessons from an operational
You start by defining the core “emotional
drivers” of your employees. Let’s be frank:
Nobody gets up in the morning and looks
forward to a mediocre day. Employees don’t
want to chase their tail, spin their wheels or
be led by bosses that know less than they do.
They want their work to have residual value
and a clear purpose. All employees irrespective of their position want to feel that they are
making a difference. This gives them hope. If
that is absent, work feels like time spent in a
Hope reduces fear, uncertainty and allows an
employee to comfortably focus on their
individual tasks. It stops them from speculating about what is going on. It also intuitively
illustrates to them that their CEO knows
what they are doing and has a clear direction.
It regiments comfort and thus productivity
which in turn, enhances emotional stability.
It lets employees know what they are doing
today, tomorrow and the day after. It simply
anchors everyone’s priorities.
Understanding the fundamental drivers of
human nature will allow a CEO to concen-
trate on the directional issues of the business
that will in turn, hyper-focus the tasks and
priorities of every employee. Those whom are
not actively engaged in supporting the
priorities and goals of the business need to
be redirected or deemed redundant. If they
are not, they will be an emotional and
financial drag on the business and disem-
powering to the rest of the staff. It will be
no different than a ship sailing with its
Having a team that is focused and directed
towards fixed targets will induce a sense of
“lift”. This inspires confidence that the
targeted goals can be achieved. It will also
fuel an underlining feeling that the effort
exerted can and will be rewarded. These
feeling are not verbally articulated by
employees, but they are emotionally felt.
They are real feelings and have to be
understood and acknowledged by any
Once clear direction and hope has been
established, the next step for a leader is to
establish trust. This needs to be achieved
as soon as possible. Of course, no CEO can
just press a button and immediately induce
trust. Personally, I never trust anyone who
says “trust me” to my face. They must earn
it. So, how does a leader quickly earn trust
as they are racing the clock?
As a CEO, you first must ensure that you
have established reasonable, achievable
goals backed by evidence that points to a
probability for success. These must be
clearly articulated to all employees.
Remember, nobody wants to be set up for
failure. Secondly, you have to create a clear
roadmap for everyone to follow, measured
by key milestones that need to be reached
by all. Key milestones are not the same as
“weekly updates” or “quarterly
statements” for review and discussions.
They are fixed targets to be taken seriously
that must be met within a prescribed
period. Milestones always have operational
consequences and must be viewed as such.
It is always imperative that a good leader
never places all the onus of responsibility
for their success on a single team or on the
shoulders of one department. Sadly, I have
witnessed a CEO tell their staff that “if
their sales team fails to meet their targets,
they would all be unemployed the next
quarter”. Not exactly inspiring, empowering nor motiving. Thus, also not surprising
that this company in question, is no longer