Downturn 101: DO-s and DONT-s when you have to wear the boots.
Updated: Dec 11, 2021
Here is a fact: throughout your career, there will be a point where you need to turn things around. If you haven't had that chance, I would suggest you look for that experience in your career, because the higher you are in the organization, the more 'ups' and 'downs' you will need to manage in real life. Just like in a flooded and stormy heavy rain, once you experience wearing boots to continue going while many people decided to stop walking or even going away, you will have no hesitation to do and repeat it again next time.
I was lucky enough to be part of Thailand's consumer goods company in 2009 - 2012. Not because it was the moment when I had big bonuses and businesses were delivering all flying colors. It's the opposite: the changing consumer, retails and competitive landscape plus political shifts made the business face hardship, despite being the number one FMCG there. The business was not delivering its ambition. In 2010, the business had a new CEO, who then followed by mixed of existing and new Board appointments. Their mandate was clear that the Board need to turn things around. And together with a project team (in which, I was the Project Manager), have set a course to do that. To cut the story short, it did. By end of 2011, it was delivering double-digit growth and back on track.
Here are key lessons I took, on the DO-s and the DONT-s :
Board to spearhead actions on People, walk the talk.
CEO and Board to own the actions. The project I managed was called "Talent and Organisation Readiness (T&O)", and it was simply a combination of data-driven analysis on understanding root causes of why the business had failed, but focusing more on People. It is a very interesting approach indeed because many downturns analyzed purely from a business perspective (i.e. market share loss, turnover declines by key customers, financial assessment of ineffective spends, etc), but the way Thailand's leadership approached it back then was from 'talent and organization lens'. So I lead the analysis part, and presented it together with HR Business Partners of the company to the Board, to then create action planning, led by each Board member. For the first time, we put strong design thinking into HR plans and programs as we bring the best-and-the-brightest mind of the company to co-design the HR plans. And the result was great: sharp thoughts, rigorous program, and great support in executing the plan. That was a year to remember, as I can't recall any other part of my career when I felt very satisfied with how HR made an impact on that particular year.
Step back, get the right framing, and act.
Identify the "Big Picture", build the framework, and get Board alignment. In the T&O case, we identified a cycle: 'where do things go wrong, and what the 'virtuous cycle' looks like if we do things right'. With that cycle, we understand the logic behind the downturn and intervene on the right start. The power of framing issues in the right way was key to do this, and it is critical that the CEO and the Board are fully aligned on the 'big picture', because if they don't, then many actions plan might well be halted by doubts that may arise throughout the year, since managing a declining business might stress Leaders (hence, could also have made them error-prone).
The most important thing is also to keep the pace fast. Don't let conclusions on causes and action plans stop for just being a nice fancy study, framework, and plans. o turnaround feed on plans. It feeds by actions.
Assemble diverse Project Team.
Create a dedicated project team, with the right mix. I remembered working with a mix of diverse talents that collaborate well. My strength is a structured-thinking, project planning, a holistic 360-degree perspective on issues, and orchestrating seemingly-simultaneous actions but aimed to make one impact. My shortcoming is this: I need time to think and find the best solutions -- a perfectionist, who ended up risk-averse and often procrastinate. My team members are the opposite: One is energetic young fresh-graduate, very creative, and has sparks of many ideas that help me translate my ideas into something fun and engaging (if not, all the initiatives might have been executed in a clinical, plain, and boring ways!), another one is a counter-part HR Manager who is courageous, very influential and can enter any conversation and wins it, with sharpness in ideas (which I help complement with rigor). The three of us 'run the show' and make the seemingly-impossible mission to put the engagement and energy of business in a U-turn, that leads to the business turnaround in only one year.
Here's the DONT-s, in which things that I almost did, but thanks to the team and the Leaders who coached me back then, I managed to alleviate it and move ahead :
Don't try to create Ferrari, go for MVP.
Being over-strategic with big and sophisticated ideas, yet, is complex and not simple. When business is in crisis, people have overwhelmed themselves already with work. People must work harder in a struggling business. When you introduce change, start with something small. Don't try to create an award-winning initiative or Ferrari, if what the business wants is a simple motorcycle to let them see that positive thing happening. My point is: just like many start-ups do, go for minimum viable products (MVP). Example: One of the issues we had was the lack of coaching and mentoring ability from the Line Manager to their team member. We created an initiative called "Coaching Club" with meetings, materials to read, sessions, tokens and incentives, etc that is very complex. It didn't work. What was working was a role-modeling that the CEO and the Board do themselves. Our CEO dedicate one hour every week, to let anyone come and talk to him on anything; this was to address the "Clarity" needed, that many people cried out loud back then. The team decided to shift it also to serve the function of "Commitment", by ensuring it happens regularly and asked our CEO to help to call out all Directors and Managers to simply talk to their people. That one call-to-action he did in one of the Townhall was actually that started the coaching and mentoring culture, not the "Coaching Club" we created. And by the way, the club's initiative was shut down after 6 months of operating without success.
Another thing about driving change is to get quick wins. MVP will give you that. Quick wins help you create milestones to build up the light of hope that People are looking for in a desperate mode of in a downturn. Simple and small things that deliver impacts are more valued than inspiring big ideas that just remain wishful thinking.
Don't change direction too fast.
Changing direction/communication, especially on People matters. When the Leadership Team has communicated changes, it is critical to stick and stay with it. This is the reason why I emphasize the importance of the right framing in the previous part. If there are any changes that have to be made, they must be positioned as if the initial 'call-to-action' remains. Why? because it is a Leadership credential to be out at stake. In a crisis situation, Trust is the keyword. To lead in a downturn is to strengthen trust over and over again, showing to the whole organization that Leaders are confident in a course they are pursuing. It is not about "not listening" to what is happening around -- as I said, if there is change, try to position it as part of the initial plan. Example: One of the initiatives we did to show that People is at the core and center of the organization, we created an engagement platform called "PeopleWeek"; it's a 4-days event where we do "al-things-people", was meant to address key engagement issues of the company. The event was published and gained so many exciting, as People were looking forward to the event. And when many things coming on top-of-one-another as suddenly regional/global HR mandated us to also do this-and-that, despite the content change, the platform name remains the same. The story goes on, this year, "PeopleWeek" entered its eighth year in Thailand's company, and has also been used as a brand in its sister companies in Southeast Asia.
Those are five bullet points (three DOs and two DONTs) I want you to remember. If you are a leader who leads a turnaround, hang on there. You might see yourself stuck in the mud, but once you manage to get over it, you will be ready to face whatever future offers you, and say to it: "Bring it on."
And if you are HR Business Partner who partner a business in a downturn, spend time with your leader, as he/she needs you the most at these challenging moments, and ensure that he/she keep believing that you and his/her Board is on board to wear the boots, and be there on the ground and lead the turnaround together.