Business Leadership Under Fire: Nine Steps to Rescue and Transform Organizations
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Business Leadership Under Fire: Nine Steps to Rescue and Transform Organizations

Pepyn Dinandt, Richard Westley

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  1. 208 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Business Leadership Under Fire: Nine Steps to Rescue and Transform Organizations

Pepyn Dinandt, Richard Westley

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About This Book

Disaster, disruption and change are recurring challenges in business. We are used to reading about the successful disruptors of established industries (Tesla, Amazon, Netflix, Uber, etc.), but what about the companies they disrupted? What ever happened to them? How did they cope? And more importantly, what are the secrets of making a business thrive again? "Business Leadership Under Fire: Nine Steps to Rescue and Transform Organizations" is the book every business leader needs. It will inspire readers with its thoughtful, practical and battle-hardened recipes for success. Pepyn Dinandt usually gets parachuted into an organization only after it realizes it is in real trouble. It is his job to assess and understand the situation that faces the business while also devising effective ways forward towards recovery and success. In "Business Leadership Under Fire" Dinandt draws on his own extensive business experience and, with the help of decorated army officer Colonel Richard Westley, marries this proven expertise with the leadership insights of military thinkers to develop an imaginative and practical nine-step plan for any leader who wishes not simply to survive but to inspire and thrive "under fire". Using lessons forged on the front lines of both the military and commercial worlds, Dinandt and Westley's concise book is required reading for anyone in any organization that needs help in turbulent times.

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Step 1. Burning platform: establishing leadership
In the military, it is always fairly obvious when there is a ‘burning platform’: that is, an unusual and threatening situation that needs to be dealt with pretty smartly or the results will be catastrophic and quite possibly lead to loss of life. In a corporate situation, the scenario is often more nuanced. Those within the organization may be aware that something is wrong and see that profits are a bit off, but it may not yet seem like a desperate situation, and certainly not one that warrants drastic changes in behaviour. It often takes someone from the outside to see that the (metaphorical) platform is on fire and that urgent action is needed.
In fairness to business leaders, the parallels with their military counterparts are generally not always as clear-cut in this situation. The military is cyclical. There is a period in which battalions will warm up for a tour with pre-deployment training. The group will then go out to the theatre of operations for the duration of the tour, where the objective is clearly defined, and when it is over they will return. Then it is on to preparing for the next tour. In business, you are out on the equivalent of operations the whole time. There may well be persistent gossip on the shop floor, rumours among suppliers and stories from disgruntled customers, but how do you really know that this is the burning platform that requires immediate action?
The short answer is that, even without explicit data, most people on the senior team will be acutely aware that something is not quite right. (And for a leader that should go doubly, or triply, so.) Yet, what usually happens is that everyone is just too busy working their eight hours a day to really bother trying to understand the issue, much less do something about it. Plus, of course, there is the scenario where it is always someone else’s problem. There is no need to get involved. (Nothing to see here!) Any organization, whether it is 5,000 strong, 10,000 strong or 20,000 strong, acts as a passive mass. It is unusual for people to step forward and volunteer to get out of their comfort zone or do anything too radical. When the proverbial hits the fan, it is far more likely that they will sit there and watch it happen.
If you would like a taster of the consequences of ignoring the burning platform, consider the following tale of two bookstore chains. Back in 2007, when online giant Amazon produced the original Kindle, the majority of book retailers, including Borders (one of the leading booksellers in the US), barely gave the clearly smouldering platform a second glance. But rival chain Barnes & Noble did, and it moved quickly on multiple fronts. It aggressively reduced costs and reorganized stores to make them more customer friendly. At the same time, it invested in development of an e-reader of its own, debuting the Nook in 2009. The Nook was a worthy competitor to the Kindle – indeed, it was better than it in certain key ways. It was good enough to capture nearly a third of the e-reader market and, most importantly, to save the company. Borders did not fare so well: it filed for bankruptcy that same year. Ignore a burning platform at your peril.
Naturally, it is ultimately the responsibility of a leader to say: this is not right, something has to change. This is why it is so often the case that it takes a new leader coming in to highlight the extent of the burning platform, having observed it dispassionately from the outside. He or she has to take the first step in making everyone aware of the fact that things are going to have to be done differently. This is not to say that an incumbent cannot do the same job. In fact, the nine steps are designed for exactly this scenario: to help existing leaders stand back, view the burning platform from afar, then start the process of making the necessary changes.
For clarity, it should also be noted here that the burning platform does not always need to indicate looming meltdown, where a company is on the brink of insolvency. A burning platform could be as simple as what transpires when a company is bought by private equity and the new owners expect improved performance in order to realize their investment in a timely manner. I have certainly been brought into businesses in these circumstances and in each case have used the burning platform as my starting point. It is the ideal way to be very open with the team about the current state of play and to indicate that everyone needs to work towards improving performance. A burning platform is an indication of hard work to come, but it is not a negative message. Quite the opposite, in fact.
The point of the burning platform is for a leader to begin a conversation with their team. There is a need for a change/­transformation programme. This is the ‘why’, and it signifies the time for telling everyone that they all need to step up.
Getting the situation under control
If you are a new leader, this first step is your opportunity to introduce yourself and tell everyone a little bit about what you have done previously and about how you like to work. For an incumbent leader, the burning platform is an opportunity to re-establish your leadership credentials. Things are going to change and this is why I am the right person to lead you through that change.
Richard’s take on this from his military career, inspired by the times when he took over as a commanding officer and was faced with an entirely new battalion, is that there is a finite period of time in which to impose your personality on a situation. This applies both to the optimum amount of time available to deliver the message and to how soon a commander delivers it after being put in charge of a particular group. As for the latter, the new leader should speak as soon as possible. In the case of the former, twenty minutes is often all that is available when it comes to keeping the attention of the average soldier, who may then quickly switch to thinking about their next meal or engagement with the enemy.
If morale is not high because of what came before, or what might come next, these twenty minutes are the best opportunity a new commander will get to win everyone over to their side and their way of thinking. In terms of delivery, military leaders prioritize finding a short, punchy way to help everyone understand what they are about and what their values are. They also need to communicate that they have an understanding of the situation and are very clear about what they want everyone to do. In Richard’s case, one of the key points he always prioritized was to ensure that everyone knew that he was a leader who would reward good behaviour, but one who would also firmly deal with any bad behaviour.
Richard found a powerful way to achieve this when he took over a battalion in Afghanistan in the middle of a tour of duty. To add an extra layer of challenge, the new assignment meant he was now leading a large battle group of 650 men, split between two separate locations. He therefore had to get people together as best he could to deliver his message while accepting that not everyone could be there.
Richard did not want to sugar-coat the task ahead. This was during his second tour of Afghanistan and he was already well aware that the Taliban were the toughest enemy he had ever fought. The fighting force had a natural warlike character, a vehement dislike of foreigners on their land and an enduring belief that, if they died, they would go to a better place. He needed to convey all this to his battle group and prepare them for what lay ahead. His solution was to produce one single sheet of paper that outlined his values, his working ethos and what he wanted from his battle group. The focus was on keeping things both succinct and meaningful. His message, which was conveyed in a session lasting no more than twenty minutes, was boiled down to three key points, which he announced as follows:
You’re infantry men and we are on operations. I require you to do three things. I need you to shoot straight, run fast and drive on.
Now that he had their complete attention, he continued:
Shooting straight means more than just the obvious. It also indicates that I require complete honesty. That’s being honest with yourself, honest with your men and honest with me. Run fast doesn’t mean in a physically fit sort of way. That is a given. It means being faster than the enemy in everything we do. Finally, driving on is saying there will be tough times, but you have been well trained and you will be well led.
What I require of you now is to exercise that determination to defeat the enemy and achieve our objectives.
Richard ended his short speech on an upbeat note:
In my twenty years, I have never lost a firefight yet, and I don’t intend to do so now with you alongside me. I will make sure you have the right resources and equipment, clear instructions and that I will be leading you and with you.
There is a lot that can be learned from this concise, clear message, much of which is applicable in a business setting too. Although the speech was brief, everyone immediately learned a lot about their new leader and his values. Equally importantly, they could see that Richard was not going to commit them to anything while he was sitting in a command post twenty kilometres away.
Both Richard and I agree that it does not matter if you are from a military background or a civilian one, if you do not get this initial address right, you will be playing catch-up from there on in. The burning platform presents a window in which every new and incumbent leader has the opportunity to introduce themselves and set out what they intend to achieve. It is the time to take extreme ownership of the situation, where everyone can see that you are there to get the job done.
Something every leader does have to be aware of at this stage is to not go too far with their rallying cry. If you stand up and say that a business is in deep, deep trouble and there is a danger it might not survive, there is a real possibility that the message will go far further than intended. Use the wrong words, or words that can be misinterpreted in any way, and you could easily end up in a worse situation than you are already in. You might find your suppliers taking it upon themselves the next day to tell the purchasing department that they are no longer delivering unless they get payment up front. ­Customer-facing staff may speak out of turn, alerting loyal customers to the fact that they might soon need to seek alternative suppliers. Soon, everyone, customers and competitors alike, will be fully apprised of the situation, and rest assured that the competitors will be having a field day. When you are already starting from a position of weakness, this would be a terrible development. The goal of this initial stage is therefore to shake up the organization, to explain that things are going to have to change in order for things to get better, but to not go o...

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