How to Lead a Turnaround

Several years ago, I had the fantastic opportunity to attend the Harvard Advanced Management Program. If you don’t know about AMP, it’s an 8-week resident program in Boston. During those weeks, I joined leaders from more than 40 countries to examine and learn from over 100 business cases. It was a fantastic experience! One of my favorite topics was business turnarounds.

Although we examined several cases in which businesses were on the ropes and managed to survive, several of the companies didn’t just survive – they were able to excel as a direct result of their turnaround efforts. My conclusion, to create fundamental change and generate outstanding performance, the leader must create and execute two critical plans: an operations plan AND a communications plan.
Operations Plan – This is the plan for how you plan to decrease costs and increase revenues. This is the heart of any successful turnaround. After studying one of the cases, we were delighted when the CEO from a successful turnaround showed up for a live Q & A session with our class. He challenged us with the idea that few turnarounds fail because of an inadequate operations plan. They fail because the leader misses the other important element – the Communications Plan.
Communications Plan –  When a business is in trouble, communication often seems to be an afterthought. And often, any communication is guarded and reactionary. That was not true in successful turnarounds. We studied this in great detail. We found communication with board members, staff members, the media and the public. The best messaging was strategic, proactive, and ongoing. The plan included the vision, the strategy and tactics. Senior leaders answered questions – both those asked and those anticipated. Expectations were clearly communicated, and progress was recognized during the journey.
You may be wondering, “What does this have to do with me? I’m not a CEO, and I’m not in a classic turnaround situation.” Here’s my challenge to you: How could you use these same two elements to accelerate performance before a turnaround is required? It's certainly an admirable and marketable skill to be able to turn around a failing organization. However, I’d rather be known as a leader who never had to rescue my organization from a death spiral.[GLS_Shield]

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Chris Patton

10 years ago

Mark, thanks for the challenge. Our company is just beginning a new stage of growth and this applies directly to our situation. Like you said, these plans do not only apply to a turn-around! I look forward to seeing the results of adding a Communications plan to the in-progress Operations plan.

Joseph Iliff

10 years ago

I can see using both an operations plan and a communications plan to develop buy-in from my team members. The operations plan demonstrates to my team that we have efficient processes, and that the work product is worth the effort they have to invest to produce it. Colloquially, that the juice is worth the squeeze. And the communication plan shows how they are included in the vision for the organization and what their role is. This develops a sense of community and trust. With meaningful work being done through efficient processes in an environment of community and trust, it is hard to see how an organization would not succeed. Great post, Mark.

Stan Cowan

10 years ago

Wonderful...but the lack of specificity and brevity of your article makes it useless. Sorry, but you provide ZERO insight. All of this is boilerplate, idea free commentary.


10 years ago

Sorry, Stan. I/m trying to find the right balance between brevity and content. I'll keep working on it. Thanks for the challenge!

Kenneth Victor

8 years ago

Thanks for all the great resources you provide!


8 years ago

It's my pleasure! Mark


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