Bob Schultek
Author of
The Gauntlet

I was once presented with a business turnaround opportunity. The company was in trouble, the President was fired, and the Board asked me take the lead in reigniting the business. They gave me 6 months to change the trend or they would shut it down. 

Having never led a turnaround, my confidence was shaken and I was filled with anxiety, doubt and fear of the future. These uncertain times remind me of what I felt back then. 

My leadership style has always tended to focus more on the future than on the near term. But at that moment, I was facing a triage situation, with the sustainability of the business, and the welfare of my and other families, at stake. Living with the perpetual stress, and weight of my decisions, during that time taught me much. Some of these lessons might be helpful now. 

While my first inclination was to start cutting costs, it occurred to me that the consequences of acting too swiftly and broadly on this impulse, versus being more surgical about it, could hurt the business more than help save it. We needed an endpoint, a vision, some sense of control over our future that would provide direction for the actions we needed to take. 

So my first priority became strengthening relationships – with my leadership team (who had recently been my peers), our customers, our employees, and even my family. They would all play critical roles in building the future we had yet to envision. This choice added clarity later when we were making strategy and structure decisions. 

Our leadership team launched our remedial journey by revisiting our purpose, values and culture, and deciding that these would continue to guide our decisions going forward. Making this our first step in the crisis proved to be pivotal in our subsequent, successful efforts to boost collaboration with our customers and our employees. And it forged the team’s shared commitment to revitalize our business. 

Our next step was to secure our key customers. We met with them, discovered what we did well and how we were failing them, gathered their suggestions on our improvement plans, and promised to create strategic value that made a difference for them. When we delivered on those promises, most of our valued relationships were saved, as were those with our independent sales reps who managed these relationships. 

We concurrently created opportunities for our employees to act on improving our methods, citing specific ninety day and six month goals. Out of frustration, our production folks had just unionized. We didn’t try to challenge that decision, but instead let our actions validate our words. They were our promise keepers and we needed them to be fully committed to correcting the business. So, we opened an ongoing dialogue directly with the people, solicited their ideas, and then enabled them to act on the priorities we established together. They learned how our business actually served customers and made money, but more importantly, they discovered how they made a difference for those customers and each other. Ten months later, they decertified the union without any push from us. 

So what began as an intimidating challenge evolved into a growth opportunity for the business. Collaborating with our entire team, and our customers, we achieved our six month goals, and then our annual goals; we saved the company, and later, made acquisitions that strengthened it. I eventually wrote a book about the experience (“The Gauntlet”)

As you start to plan for what happens next with your business, perhaps confronting your own concerns and emotions along the way, consider these lessons and how they might work for you. Continued success to you all!