Five Essential Steps of a Successful Business Turnaround
by John Treace
I have taken part in many business turnarounds in my career, and time and again noticed the same problems, regardless of whether the reason for the turnaround was a relatively minor situation or a reorganization after bankruptcy. Here are the five steps that need to happen during any major business adjustment and some of the pitfalls to avoid along the way. While this article will focus on sales teams, these steps are of a universal nature and will apply to most departments within a company.
1. Assessing the Situation
Before a successful business turnaround can be implemented, it is crucial to understand what got the company where it is now. When businesses fail, it is most often due to ineffective management. Since management is usually the problem, it is difficult to use current management insight to determine what change is needed. As outside consultants, we often hear from ineffective management teams that they need greater funding to correct the sagging business, but we know that throwing money at a problem does not work. The people who created the problem in the first place will not know how to fix it. Providing them greater resources is a mistake: it wastes money and degrades employee morale. Also, failing businesses most often do not have good metrics in use to manage and guide the business. Metrics should not only tell company leaders where they have been but should also be used to gauge future performance. Management should be able to clearly describe how the metrics it uses will predict future results.
Providing that the company’s products or services are competitive, the issues affecting the performance of a sales team can range from an ineffective sales process to low morale, which is caused by any number of factors. In these situations, I have never seen a “bad” sales team, but I have seen plenty of lousy processes and plenty of low morale—both deal-killers that will destroy any company’s sales effort. Great insight can be gained by getting close to the company’s sales force, sales processes, and customers to determine why sales are not progressing to plan.
2. Defining a Winning Culture
Companies in need of a turnaround usually have ill-defined culture. We can test this by asking salespeople to describe the company culture as they perceive it. In failing businesses, employees will not be forthcoming, and answers will vary from person to person; you’ll find that no two sales reps share the same description. Especially when a company is charting rough waters, it is imperative that the sales team embrace a unified culture, one that will define success.
At the heart of culture are the core values a company embraces. Core values are like the Ten Commandments. They are simple action statements that define the principles the company believes in, not fuzzy declarations that can be interpreted at the whim of management. They should be published and posted throughout the company. Employees should understand the corporate commitment to them, and that disciplinary action will follow their violation.
“Tell the bad news first, not last” was a core value we used at one company. If we were not able to make a customer delivery on time or if we expected to miss our sales forecast, we were expected to give fair warning to the customer or the CEO respectively. This core value became a cornerstone of this company’s customer service. Another core value was “Do the right thing for shareholders, customers, and employees, and don’t take a position that favors one over another.” This core value ensures that the company will keep the playing field level for all and not sacrifice one group for another.
Many companies say they do the right thing—but do they? And do they do it all the time? Core values define corporate culture, and companies without them tend to wander and underperform.
3. Managing People
People are the most important component of any organization. Powerful investment groups don’t invest in companies; they invest in people. When companies fail, it is almost always due to ineffective management. In a business turnaround, it is important to identify who stays in his or her current position and who must find a position elsewhere. However, most failing ventures have poor methods of measuring individual results, so care must be taken in this selection process. Making this determination is critical; powerful managers surround themselves with high performers.
However, when looking at the long term, it isn’t so much who you fire as who you hire. To fill out a failing company with high performers, look for a track record of success. All high performers will have one. To retain them, you must ensure these valuable employees that they can trust management’s word, that management has their best interests at heart, and that management is committed to distinction in all that they do. High performers want to be on a winning team, and if they think management can’t accomplish this they will look for employment elsewhere.
4. Creating a New Vision of the Future
When companies fail, employee morale and confidence is degraded, and many high performers will look for employment elsewhere. Most employees in these situations want their company to prosper, but they don’t know how to accomplish it. They believe that they have done an admirable job and will resent those who say otherwise, especially if employees from other departments lay blame on their department. This not only creates low morale but also degrades teamwork, a necessary ingredient in success. In these situations it is imperative that a new vision for the company be formulated and effectively communicated to all employees.
Don’t expect this to be an easy task—it usually isn’t. Most employees believe they have been on the right course, and they see the company’s failure as due to the ineffectiveness of other departments, not theirs. When the new vision is communicated, expect employees to fall into three categories: those who embrace it with enthusiasm, those who sit on the fence to wait and see how things go, and those who do not buy in, who resist the change and are open and verbal in their opposition. The sooner management resolves these last two groups, the better. The fence-sitters and the resisters must quickly reverse their positions and enthusiastically support the new vision—or find employment elsewhere. The sooner management converts these groups, the better. Powerful companies have sales organizations that embrace a vivid vision of the future and employ sales representatives who are confident in their management and in their employment with the company.
5. Developing a Strategic Plan
Once a turnaround-management team has defined the core values, culture, and vision of the future, effective strategic planning can begin. It makes little sense to begin strategic planning before these first steps have been accomplished. The strategic planning process should include the top management members who will be charged with implementing the plan. The planning sessions should not be held in secrecy, as the sales force will always find out that management is conducting an important meeting and will become suspicious as to why the meeting is being held. No one likes secret meetings that may define his or her future, and salespeople are especially sensitive to this. After the plan is finished, the sales force should be promptly informed as to the outcome and how the plan affects their future. Powerful companies have solid strategic plans, and they effectively gain employee buy-in to them.
Pulling off a business turnaround takes an intimate understanding of a business, including its customers, products, sales process, and employees. Powerful leaders and managers will begin by defining the culture and vision and will then communicate these to gain strong employee support. Since the turnaround process should be completed in a short time period—stalling or extending it can lead to even more losses—management should apply all the tools available, including third-party consultation. With the proper tools and an understanding of these five steps, you’ll be on the road to a successful and permanent business turnaround.
John R. Treace has over 30 years experience as a sales executive in the medical products industry. He spent over 10 years specializing in the restructuring of sales departments of companies that were either bankrupt or failing. Investor groups and venture capital firms hired him to manage turnarounds of pre-IPO companies. In 2010 he founded JR Treace & Associates, a sales management consulting business. He is a member of the National Speakers Association and earned a BS in Psychology from the University of Memphis. Treace is the author of the new book, Nuts & Bolts of Sales Management: How to Build a High-Velocity Sales Organization. For more information, please visit www.treaceconsulting.com.
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.