Turning around in a greenfield (part 2)

In the last post, I shared the details of a leadership transition I lived through and suggested two factors that were important to the outcome. Let’s turn to each of these now in more detail.

#1 Turnaround requires a different approach than Greenfield

There’s been a lot written on this subject, by people who know a lot more about it than I do, so I’ll leave the sustained analysis of this distinction to the experts. But what I do know is that, however you analyze the difference or plot it out on a four-boxer, etc., it comes down to this: a greenfield leader has the luxury of holing up with a small group of smart folks to design the optimal organization and then hire a squad to execute against it; a turnaround leader must keep the lights on while working to figure out how to quickly improve the organization. This difference has a couple of implications for a leader faced with a turnaround.

Talent management will be both incredibly difficult to do and a central part of the leader’s success. The organization that needs turning around is chock full of people doing their jobs every day, some well, some poorly; some who are motivated to change things, some who like them just the way they are; some who are indispensible, and some who aren’t. The turnaround leader needs to suss all this out and act accordingly: encourage those who want to change things and convert those who don’t; weed out the folks who do things poorly from those that excel; and make sure to spend time nurturing and supporting those people without whom the organization can’t function.

Although all this is part and parcel of any leader’s job day-to-day, it becomes more difficult in a turnaround environment because everyone knows “the end is (potentially) near”. Things are desperate enough to replace the CXO, right? So more people are looking to leave, consolidate or improve their position, are betting for/against the new leader among their informal networks, etc. And so talent management for the turnaround leader will look very different from talent management for the steady-state leader and radically different from talent management for the Greenfield leader.

Using ringers effectively will be more difficult. This is the flip side of talent management, because bringing in outside talent always has the potential to cause waves, but in a turnaround situation, it’s magnified by the dire straits the organization’s in. What can happen as a result is (i) that the CXO’s direct reports will feel like she doesn’t trust them or is working outside/around them and (ii) that the ringer(s) will be seen as a threat and kept outside the organization’s informal networks of influence and information–making their jobs difficult (if not impossible) to do.

In a Greenfield effort, a leader can lay these concerns aside and cherry pick her team–she’s laying the groundwork, not trying to prop up a structure that’s already there.

#2 The larger corporate context  is an (almost) insurmountable constraint

No matter what the leadership situation, it’s important to match your goals to the corporate context–and at times, the corporate context can be less than transparent. In our case, we were a pretty good organization that needed to be turned around…and many of us assumed that meant we had to become a truly great organization. Our new leader encouraged us to find and adopt appropriate best practices and advocated for them within IT and across the entire organization; he restructured IT processes to support these practices and began managing our application portfolio in accordance with them. And right up to the time he stepped down, it felt like we were making real progress on this front and there was light at the end of the tunnel. Along with lots of folks, I was disappointed that the status quo had won out (yet again).

But in the end, what I failed to realize at the time was that, in some corporate contexts, good is good enough for top leadership. And when this is the case, they won’t support efforts to become great because they’ve decided that great represents an overachievement. In our case, we were making money hand over fist for the company that owned us–we even joked around the water cooler that we were the LOB keeping them afloat these days (which wasn’t far from the truth).

Given that, I’m able now to consider what the situation would have looked like from the C-level of our parent company: even with a limping IT organization, we’re making great profits off this business, so what’s the least change we can make in IT to keep things stable and profitable?

From this perspective, best practices and operational excellence weren’t appropriate. We just needed to figure out how to keep the lights on, have a project pipeline with reasonable throughput, and get back to making money for corporate year over year–anything more was perceived by those at the top as a waste, a distraction from other priorities that would drive our revenue growth more significantly.

The final word

I’d love to hear from folks out there who’ve lived through similar situations, whether as a leader or under one–I’m excited to continue the conversation on this!


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