How to Lead a Turnaround

Posted 04.12.2022

Lead long enough and, at some point, you’ll face the challenge of leading a turnaround. It could be about getting a team back on track, putting a key initiative back on the rails or reviving a business or line of business that has lost its momentum. It could easily be all three of those at once.

So, what should you focus on first when your job is to lead a turnaround? I had the opportunity to ask that question of a highly skilled executive leader a few weeks ago. Seth is the U.S. national sales leader for a line of business in a global company I work with. For the past six months, he’s been an awesome participant in a cohort of the Next Level Leadership® group coaching program I’ve been leading in his company. As we wrap up the program, I talk with each of the participants one on one to review their progress and what’s next for them. The closing conversation with Seth was particularly fun because he had totally nailed it on his closing 360. He couldn’t have scored any higher on the quantitative measures in his development plan for himself and the comments from his team members sung the praises of not just what he’d done over the past six months but over the last year.

At the end of 2020, Seth was asked to take over his current role and turn around a line of business that was seriously off track. Fourteen months later, he and his leadership team have done just that. When I asked Seth what the top three things were that he did that were most important in leading the turnaround, he immediately answered with:

  • Set Clear Expectations
  • Build a Lot of Trust
  • Weed the Garden

Impressed by how quick and clear he was with his answers, I asked him to say more about each. With his permission, here are Seth’s recommendations for how to lead a turnaround.

Set Clear Expectations: You likely recall that at the end of 2020, vaccines weren’t yet widely available and that we were still in the thick of the first wave of COVID so Seth’s first team meeting after he took the job was conducted online. The first slide he projected was a picture of a tombstone. Needless to say, that got everyone’s attention. Seth’s point with the picture was to say, “We’re going to bury the past and have the wake right now. We’re saying goodbye to excuses and beating ourselves up. From here on, the focus is on what are we going to do next to make things better.” Expectations don’t get much clearer than that.

Build a Lot of Trust: The next month, Seth took all the precautions he could and started getting on planes. He has eight regional directors around the country and flew out to have drinks and dinner with each of them one on one. The only agenda was to get to know each other on a personal level. The point of the dinners was to learn about each other and build a foundation of trust that would enable them to lead well together later. The fact that Seth went to them in a time when it wasn’t easy to travel sent a big message about how much he valued them. (Seth is too modest to have made that last point himself so I’m happy to make it for him.) He knew that the turnaround was going to be driven through his leaders so he put all of his focus on them.

Weed the Garden: After making that initial investment in his leadership team, Seth turned everyone’s attention to what he called weeding the garden. The team spent time identifying everything that stood in the way of success and then whittled the list to the top three most broken items. That’s where they put their focus – fixing those three things. And, of course, by fixing the biggest problems on the short list, you get positive ripple effects and momentum on the other things that need to be fixed as well.

Seth’s three steps are both straightforward and elegant in their simplicity. Having gotten to know him through coaching him over the past six months, I would add one other thing to his list: relentless focus backed by infectious optimism. Seth brought all of himself to his team and to the work. If you want to successfully lead a turnaround, showing that level of commitment is a must-do.

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