Each period of business history has its own representative corporate type. The 1960s were the age of the conglomerate. In more recent decades, the startup has achieved iconic status.
But the kind of organization that marks our own historical moment is, arguably, the turnaround company. In almost every sector, there are once-dominant enterprises that find themselves on the wrong side of a shift in customer demand or the emergence of a disruptive technology. You know their names: Hewlett-Packard. Starbucks. Best Buy. Research in Motion (Blackberry) RadioShack. And, most recently, JC Penney.
So what does it take for a leader to pull a company out of the doldrums, or indeed out of real or potential bankruptcy?
It starts, no doubt, with a sense of urgency. In that respect, a turnaround effort differs from a standard organizational change initiative. Change happens slowly, whereas, in a turnaround situation, time is of the essence. A company that’s going in the wrong direction or losing money needs to change, and change fast, or soon it will be past the point of no return. Decide, act, decide, act: That must be the order of the day.
Or so it might seem, anyway. In fact, while the need for speed is undeniable, effective turnaround leaders also keenly appreciate the need to stop – to stop and talk with the people in their company who must do the day-to-day work of moving the organization in a new direction. Such leaders understand that a push to undertake a new strategy or to redirect operational performance depends pivotally on how well they communicate with employees. Equally important, it depends on how well they manage communication throughout their organization. Successful transformations require many people pulling together.
Here are four steps for powering a turnaround project through conversation:
TALK STRAIGHT. Conversational intimacy involves efforts by leaders to create and maintain a close connection with employees at every level of their company. And it requires leaders to be honest and authentic, especially when it comes to sharing bad news or addressing difficult topics.
MAKE TALK HAPPEN. When a company enters a turnaround crisis, it’s often in part because people in the organization have lost the ability to interact with each other. So conversationally adept leaders find ways to promote interactivity, critical debates and relationship building. They deploy communication channels that allow for back-and-forth discussion, and they build a culture that fosters that kind of discussion.
LET EVERYONE TALK. By including people at all levels of a company in the organizational conversation, leaders can achieve a more intense quality of engagement among those who must carry out a turnaround project.
TALK STRATEGY – AND TALK STRATEGICALLY. Only when leaders approach communication with intentionality can they ensure that smart talk will result in sustained action. By carefully building communication efforts around a clear organizational vision, and by taking care to follow an overarching strategy for those efforts, a leader can pursue a turnaround conversation that will keep a company on message and on track.
(Boris Groysberg is a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. Michael Slind is a writer, editor and communication consultant. They are co-authors of the book “Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power Their Organizations.”)