A recent survey revealed that only half of employees believe in the vision of their leader. When you combine this lack of faith with the crisis of confidence that those leaders often experience themselves, you end up with organizations that aren’t prepared for role expansion and growth.
Uncertainty was pretty much all I had to stand on when I became CEO of Internet Marketing Inc. (now REQ) in July 2018. I was already aware of the financial struggles and risks the company was facing, and the client losses, revenue attrition, and loss of bonuses would have been valid reasons to run for the hills. Being a part of the IMI family during the years prior, however, taught me to value our commitment to one another above all else and work as hard as I could to get the company back on its feet.
The adversities I faced stemmed from a series of unfortunate errors and oversights that had snowballed entirely due to poor fiscal and operational leadership. People felt the effects deeply when they lost benefits or were laid off, and some of them simply left. Unsurprisingly, the stopgap measures taken in response to revenue attrition had a deep effect on morale and company culture.
It’s easy to say: “Hey, this game is over. Let’s call it a day.” But I accepted the role of CEO to play the game like it was our last. I wanted to dig deeper, make a difference with the team, and even have a little fun while doing it.
While I had no experience as a CEO when I accepted the position, I have had the good fortune of always being in leadership roles throughout my career. These previous roles taught me that while experience is important for success in a position, being able to work well with people and inspire them to do their best work in return are also crucial.
When co-workers and employees know they can count on their leader to be a team player, to put people in the right roles, to provide support and insight when needed, and to ultimately inspire confidence in the company and its vision, amazing things can happen.
Overcoming the Real Challenges
Fortunately, one of the easier tasks was stabilizing revenue and halting attrition. Because I was promoted internally, I had existing relationships with most of our portfolio brands. I had already had the lunches, dinners, and meetings with the decision makers and brand advocates we worked with during my time as SVP of sales and marketing. I recognized that advantage and continued to focus on those client relationships as CEO.
It also became my mission to provide reassurance to my team. Listening and being there as an advocate rather than just the new decision maker sent a strong message.
Stopping the bleeding at IMI was, of course, one of the first steps to recovery. Regaining stability allowed us to start refocusing our efforts on eliminating errors and omissions, improving the culture, and preventing future attrition both internally and systemically.
The real obstacles weren’t the material challenges ahead of us, however. The biggest challenge was leading people to maintain a conscious commitment to overcoming bumps in the road and to see challenges as an opportunity for professional and personal growth.
At the end of the day, you’re fighting the “snowball effect” as a struggling business. When something starts going in the wrong direction, other things tend to follow. Dissatisfied customers stop coming in, and then so do new customers. This is why it’s critical to remember that good things snowball just like bad things can, and it’s the CEO’s job to create a slow-building avalanche of those positives through his or her leadership.
Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day
I view the process of recovering business, focusing energy, and stabilizing a company environment in phases. From my first day as CEO to the six-month mark, my evolving approach to integrating our strengths with the mission followed these basic guidelines:
Phase 1: Set the stage.
Connect with stakeholders, direct reports, and staff to analyze flawed operations and determine corrective paths. This is the time to listen, internalize your organization’s workings, assess your team strengths, and get to know the playing field.
The way you handle all of this can set the tone for the rest of your tenure with the company, so look, listen, and learn. We’ve seen great success in requiring team members to connect and get comfortable in new roles for a month before launching into initiatives.
Phase 2: Cast the roles.
Now you want to get more acquainted with the capabilities of your staff members. Assign them tasks with clear milestones or deadlines to clarify what they can do. Your assessment will help form the outline of your team’s first set of priorities and shed light on roles that might need fresh faces.
This phase is the time to diagnose inherited problems and kill off or delegate less important initiatives. Strengthening connections with stakeholders during this time is crucial because you need their consensus for the leadership decisions you’ll make.
Phase 3: Start performing.
This will ideally be the time to begin incorporating new organizational models and recruiting the necessary staff to build out your team. Complete or make substantial progress with one signature initiative because you need to start adding wins to your scorecard.
Enact the communication strategy that will reinforce the company culture you’re nurturing, and keep stakeholders informed of your team’s accomplishments and priorities going forward.
In the end, building good foundations requires time and a focus on communication. You might feel the weight of your responsibility when you take on leadership for a struggling business, but remember to be there for your team first and foremost. From there, you can handle anything that comes your way.
Have you used any other strategies to recover a business? Let me know in the comments!