It was the second time I’d been sent to fix a broken unit, only this time the unit didn’t know they were broken. The team had all the externals of a high performing team, but only on the surface.
Below the surface, they were dysfunctional and broken. The organizational chart bore little resemblance to the actual power structure within the unit. Senior non-commissioned officers who were supposed be leading at the first line exercised little actual leadership. Relationships with the customers of the unit were frayed because my predecessor had mystified the process to the point where “yes” seemed an impossible dream. Readiness indicators were at the lowest possible levels, disciplinary actions were severe and routine for everything from multiple DUIs to a wave of failing fitness tests.
As the unit’s leadership team looked at me, they really didn’t expect much from me. I was coming from The Pentagon and everything they’d heard from my predecessor was that I was an uptight headquarters “weenie” who knew nothing about the “real” Air Force. On top of that, several members of the command staff were not only uninterested in working with me, they were actually hostile to what they perceived of my agenda.
So began my first 100 days in command.
Being the Repairman
Last week, I wrote about taking the reins of leadership and the do’s and don’ts for the new guy. This week’s post is all about taking over a failing organization. There’s many variations on the theme of fixing something that’s broken, but it really boils down to two: (1) they’re broken and they know it, and (2) they’re broken and they don’t. The second one is the hardest.
If a team is broken and they know they’re broken, there’s some hope you’ll be able to get the team working together toward repair during the first 100 days. If you’ve had a good transition, your new team will be looking at you hopefully. Your task as the new leader is to have a plan or make one quickly. If your new team knew how to get themselves out of the mess they’re in, they’d have done it already. However, just because they don’t have a plan doesn’t mean they don’t know what’s wrong. Even if they’re looking to you as their savior, simply dropping out of the sky and imposing a get-well plan on them will guarantee resistance. You have to have a plan, but you have to get their assent.
If the team is broken and they don’t know it, you’re in for a hard slog because before you can even make or present a plan you’ll have to convince them they’ve got a problem. Again, you can’t just drop out of the sky and force something on the team. No matter how good your plan or how dysfunctional the team, they need to believe they’re sick before you can lead them anywhere. You may have had a good transition, but you will lose any good will you might have if you launch on a recovery plan prematurely
There’s no “checklist” or single solution to leading a broken team to high performance, but there is a method. This method has been successful many times, but you’ll have to take into account the personalities and team dynamics.
Lay Out Your Priorities and Principles Immediately. As soon as you assume the mantle of leadership, you need to lay out who you are and what you’re about. Your new team will have heard all about you, and much of their “intel” will likely be superficial at best. Even if their intel is correct, your approach may be very different than with a previous team because of the situation. For example, you might be easy going with a previous team–what the military calls “low maintenance”–but the new team may require a firmer hand. Boil down your priorities and principles into 2-4 easy to remember phrases. You want to be memorable, and easy to repeat–you’ll be repeating them often. Something like Readiness-Responsiveness-Resiliency or Sustainability & Responsibility works well; use alliteration and rhyme to make it easy to remember. Give the broad strokes to the whole organization, and spend some time with the senior staff to be sure they understand clearly who you are and where you intend to go.
Look and Listen. Regardless whether they know they’re failing or not. you’ll need to listen to your team to find out what they know and look around to make an assessment of the operation. Commit to your team to make no changes in the first 30 days unless it’s absolutely necessary. Your senior staff especially will be anxious and perhaps even defensive about making changes no matter how necessary. The 30 day buffer gives you a chance to listen to your team and find out what they think is important. It also enables you to discern who will be you ally, and where the landmines are buried.
Make a Plan with your Team. Be as Collaborative as You Can. In a perfect world, you and your team would sit down over the course of a few weeks and assemble a plan to fix their problems. No matter how hostile the team is to your strategy, leaders have to at least try to work with the team and get them on board. Even when you know exactly what’s broken and how to fix it, you’ll need to give your team some ownership and a stake. Do that by spending time planning with your team. Use as many of their ideas as you can, and then give them a stake and a role in implementation. Make them partners and stakeholders in the successful implementation of the plan. If collaboration just isn’t possible, then you’ll have to go it alone, In that case, be sure your boss is on board then give your orders and follow through.
Inspire and Lead.
In all cases, your people will need you to inspire them and lead them. Any change of leadership is difficult, but it’s impossible if the leader doesn’t take his job as “Chief Cheerleader” seriously. Even when most of the team isn’t even aware they’re broken they’ll want to know you’re rooting for them.
Mickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world. He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.
Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams, Mickey’s Rules for Leaders, and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own blog and GeneralLeadership.com.
Sign up for Mickey’s mailing list and get Mickey’s Rules for Leaders as a thank you!