My Leadership Excellence magazine article “Seven lessons from a turnaround CEO”

Leadership Excellence magazine published my article: “Mastering Leadership – Seven lessons from a turnaround CEO”

By Robert F. Amter

There are many theories about what it takes to be an effective Chief Executive Officer.  Most are based on observation and research.  They lack the hands-on, in the trenches experience of what it really takes to lead a company – especially one that is experiencing bad times.

When I enter a company that is severely distressed and losing money I find that the previous CEO whom is usually a decent, hard working executive, has failed because he or she simply did not know how to be a leader.

Having worked 22 years as a turnaround CEO, I’ve learned seven key practices that have worked for me in restructuring distressed companies.

1. Understand the True Meaning of CEO

Naturally born leaders are very rare.  It takes hard work to learn how to lead effectively.  You must be a serious, passionate, and accessible student, to develop into a capable CEO.

Focusing on the true definition of the Chief Executive Officer is central to illustrating the basis for sound leadership.  Common dictionary descriptions may be simplistic, but they accurately define the position:

Chief: The person with the most authority, who ultimately controls or commands all the others.

Executive:  A person having administrative or supervisory authority in an organization with the power to put plans into effect. To execute.

Officer:  One who holds an office of trust, authority, or command.

Yes, the Chief is the highest in rank; however, the ability to execute is key. Anyone can write a plan, but few can execute it – implement it. Having a team carry out a focused plan is vital.  To guide all to remain disciplined in the executing a strategy can be difficult.  Providing clear-cut direction only grows more problematic, while facing competing forces, considerable distractions, and intense challenges.

The word Officer is also significant. A person appointed to this elevated position is held in trust with genuine fiduciary accountability. They are entrusted with the management of the property, with the power to act on behalf of the owners. Fiduciary is a solemn responsibility – take it seriously.

2. Learn To Whisper 

A CEO’s primary focus is people.  A CEO gets the job done by working through others.  People greatly appreciate a CEO who can command authority without condescension.  Moreover, there is no room for hubris.

Some leaders believe a tormenting style can motivate, but the mistreatment of people eventually leads to loss for all.  At no time should a CEO bully employees.  If an officer yells at an employee, the news will spread and reduce the CEO’s effectiveness.  Even high-ranking officers, will become timid, wary, fearful, and suspicious.  Many will wonder if they will be next to receive ugly treatment.  Trust is lost, eroding confidence and efficiency.

When I joined General Electric, this training precept was passed on to me:  “When you become a CEO remember that people are your most important resource.  Successful leaders motivate.  They do not intimidate.  They whisper to get results and remain calm.  They are viewed as having high integrity and being distinctly competent.  Leadership is learned.  Respect is earned.”

3. Interact With Employees at All Levels

Whether newly appointed or a 10-year veteran, a CEO only knows 10 percent of what is actually going on in the company – particularly the key issues and problems.  To be successful, CEOs must submerge themselves into all levels to learn the status of the company’s vital issues – to get the facts.

Effective Chief Executive Officers are not office bound, nor isolated from employees. They are seen walking the halls, the floors of the manufacturing plants and distribution facilities.  People are curious about you.  I’ve had employees touch me and remark in an excited voice “I’ve never touched a CEO”. That’s a humbling experience.  Remember how much influence you can have on people.

When walking around, be approachable.  Today, many company dress codes are business casual. If there is a formal dress code, do not wear a suit coat – be more informal. Interact with people. Stop to answer questions and ask what the employee is working on. Do not be aloof. You are the ultimate boss and people will be nervous around you. Display a likeable personality, a sense of humor – don’t be judged a stiff. Do not answer requests for improvements in work rules, bonuses or wages by saying “I’ll check and get back to you.” Be decisive and say no – if the ultimate answer is no – but explain why the answer is no.

4. Demand Excellence

It is perfectly acceptable for a CEO to demand excellent performance.  Expectations for above average results can motivate a team.  Intense encouragement for quality will inspire all to work harder.

This winning style can grow capabilities.  People will stretch and can reach higher performance. Success foments self-confidence.  It builds a gung ho team – the enthusiastic and dedicated attitude of working together.

Always use a constructive tone.  Never intimidate anyone with bullying.  Again, instead of raising your voice, remember to whisper in a productive manner.

5. Consider Failure

Managers often require that rigorous, in-depth and detailed analyses be completed prior to implementing priorities, initiatives and capital investments. Management wants to know what positive incremental profitability and free cash flow will result from executing the project or making an acquisition.  But the analysis should also analyze the impact on the company if the initiative fails. What will the effect of the capital expenditure be on the capital structure and the cash flow?  If it’s a new product introduction, what will the reaction be in the channel segment, with customers and competitors?  If an acquisition, are we ready to handle integrating the new operation into existing operations?  Does management have the time for an acquisition, or will they be overwhelmed with other priorities?  What are the short and long-term consequences on the businesses that may result by an overwhelmed management?

Once a management team decides on its priorities, a project tends to get a life of its own, to not be killed once work has started on it.  Still you need to periodically judge its viability.

6. Foster Communication

Well-run companies have candid cross-functional communication.  It is essential for the new CEO to maintain open exchanges of information.  Meetings should include everyone involved with the initiative, issue, or problem including those from the third and fourth tiers of the company.  For example, do not invite only the VP of sales and his team, while investigating a problem with sales.  Include marketing, manufacturing, supply chain, product and accounting in the meeting, since each of these functions affect sales.

Cross-functional communication is almost always lacking in distressed companies, because it takes the direction, energy, and patience of management to maintain it. Silo management with top-down decision making is easier but always results in a failing business.  Mistakes are easily hidden and multiply when information isn’t shared.  When internal functions do not discuss vital issues, a business becomes uncoordinated and produces negative surprises.

I encourage leaders to meet face-to-face.  Avoid depending on email, telephones or video conferencing. Judging performance and initiatives is best evaluated first hand, in the same room with the people orchestrating the endeavor.  Seeing body language, facial expressions, and sensing a person’s passion, provides signals often missed when using various technologies.

7. Empower The Team

Ownership of the strategic plan to fix or run a company must be held by the people on all the levels who contribute to creating the plan and are crucial to its being implemented.  It cannot be only the CEO’s action plan.  It will never get implemented.  Do not legislate the strategies and tactics.  Do not dominate the process.  Persuade your subordinates and remember to listen to their input.

While it’s important to have consensus and ownership of decisions by the officers and managers, in the end the CEO is the final decision maker.  Don’t abdicate the role or decide based on since we all agree.  If, as CEO you do not agree, don’t approve a group decision.  You may decide on an alternative solution and not implement the consensus solution.

As the CEO, you have fiduciary responsibilities.  Take them seriously.

Being a CEO is a position of great power, but not an easy one.  If you follow the steps, you and the company you lead will thrive.

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Contact

Robert Amter
(347) 316-8410
bob@robertamter.com