Leading a Turnaround? Focus on the Big Rocks

Posted 07.13.2009

Dutchboy Any executive who has ever been charged with leading a turnaround has to empathize at some level with President Obama. How would you like to be accountable for two wars, a shaky economy, fixing the health care system and dealing with Iran and North Korea – all at once?  If you’ve led a turnaround, you know that the flood of issues can overwhelm you and make you more than a little frantic. The image I have in mind is the little Dutch boy trying to plug his fingers into all the holes leaking water from the dike.

Regular readers know that I’m an Obama supporter, but I’m beginning to worry (as is Colin Powell) that he’s trying to plug too many holes at once. As he travelled to Russia, Italy and Ghana last week, Obama needed to take time out to walk back comments from Vice President Biden on the economy and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel on health care reform. You just get the sense of someone who is trying to keep too many plates spinning.

At the beginning of a two week period when his biggest issue, health care reform, is coming to a head in Congress, (hold on, maybe not) Obama is keynoting an all day summit on America’s cities. Not that cities aren’t important, but can’t this wait a bit longer while the bigger rocks are addressed? As the Washington Post reports this morning, White House staffers are showing the physical strain from the 24/7 pace they’re on.  I’m guessing the mental strain isn’t far behind.

Obviously turning around a company is simpler than leading a country, but I think there was a good lesson for the President and all leaders in a turnaround situation hidden away in the Business section of Sunday’s New York Times.  The subject of one of their “How I Got Here” interviews was Mark Ordan, the CEO of assisted care company, Sunrise Senior Living.  Having a couple of friends who used to work for Sunrise in its glory days, I know personally that the company is going through a very rough patch these days. It’s a classic turnaround situation and here’s what Ordan has to say about how he’s spent his time and attention since he came to the company in March 2008:

“This past March, we restated the earnings and explored the possibility of bankruptcy. Still pending is a federal securities inquiry targeting Sunrise’s accounting, which could continue for some time … In June, HCP Inc., which owns the retirement communities we manage, said it would be seeking to end some of our management contracts — another challenge that could last for years.

So far, we have avoided bankruptcy by divesting everything that isn’t our core retirement community business, and I’m keeping the company on a steady course in the midst of a lot of turbulence.”

Ordan seems to understand that if you’re leading a turnaround, you’ve got to prioritize. It’s the old story that if you want to fill up a jar with lots of different size rocks, you but the big ones in first and then fill in the spaces with the smaller rocks.  This story presumes, however, that you have identified the big rocks first.  That seems like one of the most important tasks for anyone leading a turnaround – deciding what’s a big rock and what’s not.