Downturn 101: DO-s and DONT-s when you have to wear the boots.
Updated: May 31, 2019
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 organisation, 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 of 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 a Thailand's consumer good company in 2009 - 2012. Not because it was the moment when I had big bonuses and business 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 were 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), has set a course to do that. 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 focus more on People. It is very interesting approach indeed, because many downturns analyzed purely from business perspective (i.e. market share loss, turnover declines by key customers, financial assessment of ineffective spends, etc), but the way the Thailand's leadership approached it back then was from 'talent and organisation 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 plan and program as we bring the best-and-the-brightest mind of the company to co-design HR plan. 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 recalled any other part on my career when I felt very satisfied on 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 T&O case, we identified a cycle: 'where do things went 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 conclusion on causes and action plan stop for just being a nice fancy study, framework and plans. o turnaround feed on plans. It feed 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 finding 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 helps 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 lead 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 has 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 want is a simple motorcycle to let them see that positive things happening. My point is: just like many start-up does, go for minimum viable products (MVP). Example: One of the issue we had was the lack of coaching and mentoring ability from Line Manager to their team member. We created initiative called "Coaching Club" with meetings, materials to read, sessions, tokens and incentives, etc etc that is very complex. It didn't work. What was working was a role-modelling that the CEO and the Board do themselves. Our CEO dedicate one hour every week, to let anyone comes and talk to him on anything; this was to address "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 help to called 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 operating without success.
Another things about driving change is to get quick wins. MVP will give you that. Quick wins help you creating milestones to build up light of hope that People is looking for in a desperate mode of in a downturn. Simple and small things that deliver impacts are more valued than inspiring big idea that just remain a 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's any changes has to be made, it must be positioned as if the initial 'call-to-action' remains. Why? because it is Leadership credential to be out at stake. In crisis situation, Trust is the key word. To lead in a downturn, is to strengthen trusts over and over again, showing to the whole organisation that Leaders are confident on 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 initiative we did to show that People is at the core and center of the organisation, we created an engagement platform called "PeopleWeek"; its 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 excitement, as People were looking forward for 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 remain the same. Story goes on, this year, "PeopleWeek" entered its eight year in Thailand's company, and has also being 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 lead 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 this challenging moments, and ensure that he/she keep believing that you and his/her Board is onboard to wear the boots, and be there on the ground and lead the turnaround together.