Harnessing turnaround executives in your business (Part 1)

Key steps on becoming or engaging a turnaround executive

The role of a turnaround or interim executive has never been more prevalent in the Australian business community as companies look to implement significant change, quickly, after the past 12 months.

Numerous companies have been forced to cost cut just to keep the lights on. Unfortunately, in technology, the world in which I play, this can leave you vulnerable – technology lifecycles are short, and it doesn’t take long for systems to reach end of life, competitors may keep adding new features, build new customer experiences and good staff leave so they can keep their tech credentials up to date. 

Covid drove significant increase in digital initiatives with a rapid move into new digital channels.  Decisions on digital strategies that would have taken months to move through an executive leadership team now get approved in days.  The momentum is fantastic and driving innovation, but it also means some organisations will confuse minimal viable product (MVP) with poor quality online products.

As companies try to navigate their way out of the current malaise many will need a guiding light who can upturn their traditional thinking. Without tenure, the interim executive is able to quickly enact change or progress ideas that others may avoid for fear of alienating the execs or the board.

But they need to deliver on the new ideas, and they need to do it through credibility, influence, and relationship skills.

Key is changing that culture in a tight timeframe. Sometimes this is done with an interim CIO or CEO and sometimes it becomes permanent.

To assist others considering this as a career option or those looking to engage an interim executive, I’ve listed below my 10 key learnings during my time working with other Interim Executives:

  • Timelines – Within three months you should be able to show the top issues you plan to address, within six months have initiated these plans and within the year demonstrate a change in culture and a clear, new defined way of operating.
  • The downside – You walk into a high stress environment and the Board and CEO want to see a path to green quickly.  Often the situation is messy, dysfunctional and very challenging. 
  • Being apolitical – I assess a culture and try and understand the sense of a place.  I get to know the people, what motivates them and try and understand how the organisation moved into its current position.
  • Creating a change culture – You must get your people behind you. Not everyone is going to come along but you need to speak with you teams, learn about them and take the time one on one. 
  • Restructures – In any turnaround there will be people that need to be let go. Sometimes amazing talent is hidden underneath poor leadership and the team members had simply been given poor guidance.  The question is whether the person is coachable.
  • Build trust and take care of people – You can’t make the correct decisions unless you know you have the right information and that comes from your people. You must build trust and show that you are there to help.
  • Tenacity – You are going to face new challenges every day as you uncover the layers of problems that have taken years to build.
  • Executive team – You need to win the support from your fellow Executive team.   You may also make changes that may momentarily negatively impact their business line, so they need to understand and support the greater plan.
  • What you leave behind – To the next executive you are providing them an amazing foundation.  You’re handing them a team that has come out the other side of a tough situation.  They are engaged and experienced, they have developed deep business knowledge.
  • You need a burning platform – Unless there is a real reason why you need change it won’t occur as you won’t have the support of your fellow executives or your teams. 

The Turnaround Executive position is not a job for the faint-hearted. You need a tough hide as you’ll be confronting at times an antagonistic workforce and an executive team that might gulp at some of your ideas. But at the end, you will have left behind a dramatically reformed company that can move ahead confidently.

By Nicki Doble, Global CIO of Cover-More Group