If you aspire to lead, then at some point in your career you will likely find yourself responsible for turning around a troubled team. The trouble may come from within the team, external forces, or both. For me, it was both.
My first GM role was leading the turnaround of a loss-making business unit, within a shrinking division, of a once great company. This company had missed the next big wave in its industry, and was now a take-over target. At the time, some people questioned the wisdom of that career decision; but, I knew that challenging circumstances can provide learning opportunities and personal growth. The first thing I learned was that in a turnaround, your degrees-of-freedom and options are very limited. You have to understand the context before you act, because there may not be a second opportunity—and, you have to act fast. In my first turnaround, while there was a serious team effectiveness problem, the broader context was a combination of a product portfolio that was too extensive, and a cost structure that was too high, all of which led to significant losses. Before I could address the team issues, I had to stop the bleeding.
Diagnosis, Treatment, and Recovery
With a reduced and focused product set, fewer people, and a return to profitability, my attention turned to the team. In the aftermath of the restructuring and downsizing, the foundations of the team had been badly fractured, so my first priority was to close the gaps and heal the wounds. Across the business unit, every team leader began holding weekly roundtable sessions to listen to people’s concerns, expectations, and ideas for addressing them. The notes and actions from each team leader were consolidated and tracked by my HR team, and my leadership team and I reviewed them weekly. Within a month, a pattern emerged. We had three big challenges:
- Team trust and inclusiveness needed to be rebuilt at all levels – between team mates, with team leaders, and across teams.
- In the aftermath of the shift in market focus and product portfolio reduction, the purpose of the business unit needed to be revisited.
- In the wake of the downsizing, gaps across key relationships needed to be mended.
Across the business unit, each team leader, along with an HR partner, developed a plan to address the top three team challenges. Over the next six months, we tried various approaches to addressing the challenges. We learned what worked and then adopted those practices across the business. Within a year, our focus on the three big challenges resulted in a significant improvement in the well-being of the teams, as well as their effectiveness in achieving their goals.
The Discipline of a Team Turnaround
- Your best laid plans will not survive the first contact with reality, so be adaptable. Focus on understanding the context. Realize that your options will be limited. Be prepared to act quickly.
- As soon as you have stabilized the business situation, focus on the people. Actively listen and identify the top two or three big challenges that are getting in the way of team effectiveness. In particular, pay attention to team purpose, team norms (especially trust), and closing gaps across key relationships.
- Be disciplined. With a return to stability, you will be tempted to take on additional initiatives. Recognize that the new habits that lead to team success take time, and rarely can a person or team develop more than a few new habits at once. The more discipline you have, and the greater the focus on the few actions that matter the most, the greater your chance of building a winning team.
Exceptionally effective teams are a product of their habits. Exceptional team leaders understand that developing habits requires discipline, and the core habit of ensuring healthy team relationships sits at the heart of team performance. You will be tested. Be prepared and good luck!
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