Moving the Ball Down the Field: A Case Study in Turnarounds

I once worked with a hotel that was ranked at the bottom of their management company on nearly ever metric – profitability, customer satisfaction, employee engagement.  When a new general manager, a former college football star, took over the property, he probably felt like he was in a classic Bad News Bears situation.  His rag-tag team had sub-par equipment, including an elevator that constantly broke.  No matter how hard they tried, they felt like they were losing every game, so most of them had given up.  But in a short time, he had improved the hotel’s financial metrics, went on to win the company’s customer service competition, and employee engagement was some of the best in the company.  How did they do it?  Read on to find out.

1.  Choose to be a Winner

When the new general manager took over, he looked around at a hotel that was about as down on itself as its customers were.  Everyone knew they weren’t doing well, but nobody seemed to care.  And those that did care had made excuses for so long that fixing the problem wasn’t their responsibility.  “We have bad guests,” “everything looks out of date,” “we’re too far away from everything,” they complained.  Since nothing in the hotel was within their control, nobody had to worry about fixing it.

Frustrated with this attitude, the GM gathered everyone together and asked “do you like being in last place?  Because I’ve never been happy with last place.  I don’t even want to be in second place – I want to win.”  If you’re going to turn around a culture, you need to change the conversation, to get people excited about a world that can be different.   The GM changed the conversation from a culture of excuses (“why are we losing?”) to a culture of hope (“what do we need to do to win?”).

2.  Know the Big Goal, But Focus on Every Play

Any employee that has been through a ‘turnaround’ situation has seen a new leader come in, energize everyone with, and fall on his face.  So what made this case different?  In most change programs, the new leadership comes in with a lofty vision, but no connection to execution.   It’s the equivalent of trying to turn around your team by telling them to score more touchdowns.  Of course you need touchdowns to win, but how do you score them?

While he kept his eye on the big prize, the GM focused on winning every single play.  Lobby management is a critical part of the customer, but because guests would come in spurts, they would often have a long wait.  So he engaged his whole team to develop low cost ways to manage the check-in line.  Managers got out from behind their desks, the bell crew started taking luggage even before people were checked in, and one of the restaurant servers stepped in to offer complimentary beverages.  A painful wait in line became a pleasant opportunity to get showered with hospitality.  But it didn’t happen because they focused on touchdowns, it happened because they picked one piece of the drive and worked at it.

3. Focus On What You Can Change, Not What You Can’ t

While he had his team focusing their attention on every piece of the guest experience, the GM also directed them away from the things that used to be their excuses, the things they couldn’t change.  While the decor hadn’t been updated in decades and looked dated, this was beyond their control, so the GM took it on himself to negotiate with the owners for investments.  If things broke, he asked the staff what they could do to delight guests in those situations, and make lemons out of lemonade.  The serenity prayer, commonly used in recovery programs, asks a higher power to “grant the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and wisdom to know the difference.”  In business, being that higher power is the leader’s job.

4.  It’s The Coaches, Not The Players

Inevitably in any turnaround, there are people on the team who just aren’t going to make it.  But usually, the problem isn’t with the players, it’s with the coaching staff.  Senior management have failed at managing their business, motivating their team, and making sure that under performers were worked out quickly.  So if you’re looking for someplace to make changes in your turnaround, look at your direct reports first.  As a leader, you can only do so much yourself.  If the people you rely on to make your vision a reality aren’t up to the ast, or aren’t on the same page as you, make changes fast so that you can start building the right environment.

5. Find Your Team’s Hidden Strengths

You’ve seen it in nearly every sports movie.  The Bad News Bears, The Sandlot, and The Longest Yard all featured the classic trope of a rag-tag team of misfits who look doomed, but who realize that their unique, under appreciated talents, when brought together, could outmaneuver their competition.  But this isn’t real, it just makes for interesting movies, right?

Not so.  The best leaders are able to tap into their team’s hidden abilities and draw them out, finding out how everyone can contribute to the team’s goal.  When you look at it through this lens, all of a sudden the bellman who has been there for decades becomes a stand-in concierge for a hotel that can’t afford one.  The front desk agent that loves to chat up guests, slowing down check-in, can become a lobby greeter who eases the wait.  And the engineer who will put on a puppet show for the guest’s kids, but doesn’t know how to fix the TV…well, he still needs to learn how to fix a TV.

6. Make A Team Only Winners Want to Play On

There’s a common refrain that if you wan’t to build a successful organization, the first step is to make sure you have the right people on board.  And that’s true – it’s hard to win without a winning team.  But as the previous two points make clear, building a winning team in a turnaround organization is about more than just hiring great people.  And usually, it’s about more than just firing those who don’t fit.  In fact, when interviewing the leaders of most successful turnarounds, not just in this hotel, but across industries, leaders didn’t talk about firing, they talked about creating an environment where the most disengaged employees self-selected themselves out.

When the message every day is that you want to focus on winning, the person who thrives on excuses and negativity won’t feel at home.  And when they see everyone else stepping up, they get the hint that they don’t belong.   An often neglected insight into human psychology is that just as it’s important to create a culture where people feel like they belong, enjoy others’ company, and can be successful, if you create a culture where people who don’t fit don’t feel these things, they’ll find their own way out.  And that’s exactly what our GM did: while they had to manage certain people out of the  hotel, for the most part, they got the hint that it wasn’t the place for them, and they found other opportunities before it even came to termination.

Bringing It All Together

One area many leaders miss is that they bring in parts of a successful change program, but don’t realize how they all work together, leading to dysfunction.   If you set up a grand vision, but forget to focus on the individual plays, your team will get frustrated that they aren’t getting closer to the goal, and the change will seem like more of the same.  And if you engage your team, but don’t work out non-performers, your best people are going to be frustrated by the presence of people who don’t carry their weight.  As in most things in life and in business, doing the right thing might seem obvious in retrospect, but its hard in the moment.  You need to make tough choices, have hard conversations, and force trade-offs to succeed in a turnaround.  But when you do it, you can go from the bottom to the top quickly, and create a better environment for your employees, your customers, and your business in the process.

Photo courtesy of nightthree on flickr.

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