I’ve done it for three decades, turning around companies from agriculture (such as Styrotek) to telecommunications giants (such as ITT). As interim leader, I have to parachute in, quickly gain trust and respect from all levels, determine a course of action, and unite everyone to stay that course—all within a limited timeframe.

It takes leadership strategies far beyond business and managerial chops, though certainly those are necessary. You can’t lead effectively without a connection to the people in the company; emotional intelligence is a must. Think of it as ‘strategic empathy’—being sincerely focused on the individual, but always with the big picture top of mind.

Whether you are an interim or a permanent CEO, these 7 tips for using strategic empathy bear relevance for anyone in a leading role.

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Over the years I’ve encountered far too many business owners who profess comfort with their current levels of revenue, service, culture and rightful place in society. When asked about growth plans, they offer some variation of the line “If I had any more business, I would lose the capability to service my existing business.”

I call that business situation, Stasis. Some of the definitions in Webster are:
• a state of static balance or equilibrium : stagnation
• a state or period of stability during which little or no evolutionary change occurs

For me, Stasis is synonymous with Disaster.

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Many companies are starved for effective leadership, and as a result the demand for great interim executives who will come in and do the work is increasing. Consider this passage from the book Traction:

The inability to make a business vision a reality is epidemic. Consider it a new take on an old quote: Vision without traction is merely hallucination. All over the world, business consultants frequently conduct multiple-day strategic planning sessions and charge tens of thousands of dollars for teaching what is theoretically great material. The downside is that after making you feel warm and fuzzy about your direction, these same consultants rarely teach you how to bring your vision down to the ground and make it work in the real world.

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40 years in public company management, merchant banking and entrepreneurship in multiple industries has left an indelible imprint on me. In the two dozen businesses that I have been involved with as owner, investor, operator or contractor, my belief is that businesses that seek outside help tend to focus on fixes for weaknesses in growth or profitability. Whether it be failing or non-existent cash flow, troubled industries, poor strategic fits, etc. my belief is that the damage was done far before the negative symptoms occurred. Operating and financial weaknesses are the symptoms of the larger illness.

The root cause is always about two factors: people and leadership. A leader creates the culture for his company and that culture is palpable at every level of involvement including the C-suite, middle management, rank and file, customers and suppliers.

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I have yet to enter a turnaround situation that I didn’t hear the owner or CEO or the board say that the answer to all of their problems is more money. While in some cases this is a real need, it is seldom the systemic problem within the company. Chances are that they have some work to do. Needing ‘dollars’ is one thing … being ready to raise ‘dollars’ is another.

There is an abundance of funding available in the marketplace for good deals. The key wording in this statement is of course “good deals.” When a company is in trouble rarely is it considered a good deal without some fixing.

Don’t be surprised when you come to the realization that the company isn’t attractive to investors or lenders. This means that you have the opportunity to rebuild the company, or parts of it, so that it can be considered a “good deal.” Build a company that investors want to invest in.

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I once took one of those business simulation courses. In it, we were given a computer terminal, an inbox, and a walkie-talkie. Our simulated company, Acme Widget, was said to be in trouble, and the point of the exercise was to evaluate our crisis management skills. There was a team of psychologists who were looking for leadership and other soft skills that might help us do well during a pressure-filled day.

The fellow who had been chosen as simulated CEO of our team was an up-and-coming executive in a Fortune 100 company. He was clearly acting as CEO in the exercise because his company had indicated he had so much potential.

The psychologists asked the “CEO” to give his motivational speech as the simulation began.

The CEO said, “Our job is to grow revenue faster than expense. Now get to work!”

That was it.

Would it surprise you to hear that Acme Widgets did not survive the simulated crisis? The emails flew, the disasters proliferated, and the team fell apart. I thought then, and I still believe, that the CEO’s speech could have made a big difference in how our team performed.

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