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Strategic Turnaround: 5 leadership lessons

Strategic Turnaround: 5 leadership lessons

Leadership is not easy, whether it is leading a family, school, organisation, or nation. But it is possible, as Dr Dakuku Peterside demonstrated during his tenure as the director-general of NIMASA.

In the yet-to-be-released book, Strategic Turnaround, Dr Peterside shows that leading large-scale transformational changes in a public sector organisation operating in a complex industry like the maritime sector is possible. The book is more than an account of stewardship embarked upon by Dr Dakuku Peterside and his team in NIMASA; it is a corporate case study of how any leader can lead large-scale transformational changes in any organisation.

While your organisational context might be different, the principles of leadership contained in the book are relevant, practical, and universal in application. Consequently, irrespective of where you are in your leadership journey, you will find in the book a treasure-load of lessons, examples, and nuggets to help you become a more effective leader and unlock the greatness in your team or organisation.

While there are numerous important leadership lessons contained in the yet-to-be-released book, I will highlight five here:

1. Listen first, then lead. One of the greatest mistakes leaders make in a turnaround situation, especially when they are brought in from the outside, is to come with preconceived ideas and strategies without understanding the challenges and culture of the organisation they are supposed to lead. What they meet is a lukewarm reception to their ideas at best and resistance at worst. Great leaders first listen to their people to know the challenges of the organisations before casting their visions. When people feel heard, they, in turn, will listen and pay attention to what the leader has to stay. This should be done before the leader casts his or her vision or designs strategies. That is what Dr Dakuku Peterside did when he came in. He took the first three weeks to listen to his team and got off to a resounding start. He asked plenty of questions to understand the issues from different perspectives.

2. Put people first. Leadership is ultimately all about people. Sometimes leaders are so carried away by their visions that they forget that the people they are speaking to are broken, wounded by past administrative failures, frustrated by not being promoted, worried about job insecurity, and so on. Leaders who fail to address people’s pain points will not get their required emotional energy to embark on the turnaround journey. What are their pressing issues and which can you readily address?

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For NIMASA, one quick win that Dakuku secured was the promotion of staff. This exercise had not happened for several years but was achieved within the first seven months of his tenure and became an annual ritual during his tenure. He rejigged existing welfare packages to make people receptive of changes his team introduced.

3. Focus on the critical few. In transforming a large organisation with a plethora of problems, many leaders try to fix everything at once. The result is that people lose steam and become burnt out from moving from one change initiative to another. Great leaders take a different approach – they focus on three to five critical activities that will guide all their change and transformation initiatives. NIMASA, under Dakuku’s watch, developed a Medium-Term Strategy Plan with five critical components. His team called it the five pillars of reforms. He transformed the agency by paying attention to these component units.

4. Model the way. Nothing derails a transformation programme faster than the leader who does not model the way or walk the talk. Sometimes leaders are so hung up on motivating people that they forget that the greatest motivational force is the power of positive example.

Dakuku led by example. He was the culture champion at NIMASA, and he exemplified the behaviours he expected of his team. Transparency, effectiveness and efficiency became hallmark of his leadership. Dakuku’s turnaround time of files was amazing, his grasp of issues disarmed even the best professionals and his sense of compassion unparalleled.

5. Make results non-negotiable. The ultimate transformation of any institution is a marked improvement in results. Therefore, great leaders measure results, not activities. One reason why organisations slip into mediocrity and oblivion is an absence of the focus on results. Activities replace results, and longevity is rewarded instead of actual performance.

To transform an organisation as Dakuku did at NIMASA, you need to develop a compelling scorecard, use data to drive conversations, challenge people to connect their everyday activities into tangible organisational outcomes and hold them accountable to deliver organisational results.

Strategic Turnaround is just a book of leadership as it is a narrative of turnaround initiatives under Dakuku’s transformational leadership.