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The Stalled Project: What Does It Take to Be a Turnaround Leader? (Part II)

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This article was derived from an interview conducted by Dr. Rosalind Wilson for the M.B.A. Course "Managing Corporate Turnaround" at London School of Business.

Details, Details, Details

Until you have determined who on the existing team is competent and can be trusted, or until you have been able to bring in your own key people, you have to involve yourself in every detail. Clearly, it is not possible to micromanage every aspect. However, once you have prioritized the issues you have to be involved in, "drill down" into each of them to analyze the problem, and then instruct your managers on how to turn it from a failure into a success.



During the first week, continue the due diligence by gathering information and beginning the priority tasks listed above. At the same time, learn about your people. They will be learning about you, too, so both sides will be making judgements and decisions.

Generally during the first 30 to 60 days, the turnaround leader absorbs the particulars of the stalled project, the market, and the personnel, determining who goes, who stays, what programs to cut, and how to fix the remaining ones.

Improving the Organization

The people you meet during the first 30 days are generally not going to be there by 60 days. Almost 100% of the senior team members will go. Sales and marketing is a business that is all about human interaction and relies on the ability to lead people; if the team has lost confidence in management, it is hard to get it back.

Within the first 30 days, try to identify a second-tier manager who will be viable as the next project leader—someone who can be coached, who has some rapport with the team, and who knows where the "skeletons" in the project are. Once that person is identified, it is time to let the project director go. This is brutal and instant. It is not the project director's fault, but the fact is he or she has done everything within his or her power but is not delivering.

Identify all the available talent in the second and third levels of management—people who have the ability to take on more and grow. You may need to bring in people from the outside; you will often need to bring in a sales manager. It's very important, with so much going on, to create "pockets" of activity where you feel comfortable that things will be handled effectively. It's impossible to fix everything at once.

Talking About Improvement Rather Than Change

The first six months are roughly divided into 90 days to understand it and break it, followed by 90 days to put it back together in its new, improved form. A five-year plan is nonsense; the focus is on 18 months (or less time) in which to get results. The nature of this business enables results to be seen relatively quickly due to the level of measurement that is applied.

In the period between days 60 and 90, make necessary people and program changes and put the longer-term strategies in place. During the next 90 days, these changes should be taking hold and moving the project in the right direction from the human-resource perspective to the operating-cost perspective and the revenue perspective.

Mistakes are made during this period. The early phase requires rapid decisions to be made, and it is inevitable that some of those decisions will turn out to be wrong. During the next six months, you will correct those mistakes and should be seeing results and gaining momentum.

Building momentum is about encouragement—lots of pats on the back for the team. Let them feel they are getting close to you and vice versa. People often are afraid and may not see the progress being made, so point it out. Achieving the goals that have been set is an obvious accomplishment for which to congratulate people.

Setting Realistic Goals

Being accountable to stakeholders and recognizing the importance of stakeholder management are functions of upward management. You may also discern a reality gap appearing in terms of setting and managing realistic expectations on the parts of the stakeholders.

At the end of the first year, you should have reached your baseline goals undoubtedly determined with the client early on as part of the process of setting realistic expectations. By the end of the first year, you have either obtained acceptable results and are moving on to growing the business, or you have been terminated because the plan did not work or they did not like what you were telling them.

These are the preferred timelines; however, your client may want all this accomplished in 90 or 180 days, and that is why the analysis of realistic expectations and financial resources in the initial phase is so critical.

Stakeholder management is part of the art of "managing up" and a constant challenge. Be patient. Over-explain. They are depending on you to fix the project, but they are also strong personalities who want to keep some control and have their say.

Sometimes you act as the messenger—they don't know what you've discovered about their project, and you have to tell them, which is part of the process of setting realistic expectations. Sometimes the only way you know you are doing a good job is by seeing the assignment get extended or by finding out they are offering you a permanent position.

What Does It Take to Be a Good Leader in Turning Around a Stalled Project?

Turnaround is a unique situation, and being a turnaround specialist is not for everyone. Being involved (often extensively) in multiple activities is a tremendous personal challenge. A turnaround leader must prioritize and work long hours.

The business is in trouble, and you are there to fix it or kill it—that is a huge responsibility, and for lack of a better term, it's a triage situation. This is why the specialist is highly compensated and it takes a special kind of person to do it. It takes a special breed of person to do this, and the fundamental components are as follows: you must love what you do, you must do it with passion, and you must be durable and persistent.

The Relevant Personal Qualities and the Importance of Experience

In addition to fundamental skills (such as sales, marketing, budget development/management, communication, and human-resource management), there are several key qualities that make a turnaround (or any other) leader successful:
  • Integrity and acceptance of the fiduciary responsibility are critical to making the decisions that best serve the goals and interests of the company/client.

  • Respond; do not react. There should be no "knee-jerk" reactions. When in doubt, sleep on it, think about it, and be sure to detach your personality from the situation.

  • Be confident and consistent. Confidence comes from training, experience, and success. Only when you are confident can you be a risk taker, and taking risks is part of every minute of the day for a leader. You must also be consistent with a clear-cut management style; this will bring you loyalty and results.

  • Listen. At the same time, you must interpret the input from your team from an individual perspective as well as in relation to the project.

  • Be human. Much of what you do comes from a very hard perspective, so try to treat all with respect. You cannot have charisma without humanity, and you cannot lead without charisma.

  • Do not be deterred. The work is about solving problems, and setbacks are part of any project. Persist and develop the judgment skills to determine if and when it is time to press forward with the plan and when it is time to make a new plan.

  • Exude enthusiasm and passion. Leadership is ultimately a transfer of knowledge and emotion, especially in the turnaround situation. If you don't know what you are doing, your people will know, and they will not respond with their highest levels of effort.

  • Pass on what you know. Your knowledge, activities, and insights will always be valued.
This article reflects my commitment to this last axiom. I am always available to answer questions.

About the Author:

Ron Frank is known throughout the shared-ownership resort industry as a top-level executive with a straightforward approach and a "can-do" attitude. With more than 25 years of experience in the resort industry, Ron has held executive positions with such industry leaders as Fairfield, Shell Vacations, Sunterra Resorts, and Radisson Hotels and Resorts.

As a Regional Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Sunterra Corporation, Ron was part of the team that brought the corporation out of Chapter 11. With an extensive sales and marketing background specializing in startups and workouts, budget management, and strategic planning, Ron is highly regarded in the areas of staff planning, recruitment, supervision, training, evaluation, and organization, and he is recognized as having a natural talent for managing and developing all levels of resort staff.

An innovative thinker with extensive international experience, Ron has been responsible for creating and managing sales and marketing teams that have produced in excess of $67 million annually. Ron is a Registered Resort Professional (RRP), the highest designation given by the resort industry's professional organization, the American Resort Development Association (ARDA).


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 expectations  Shell Vacations  Sunterra Resorts  Radisson Hotels and Resorts  success  Marketing for Sunterra Corporation  details  settings  management  errors


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