We Want You to Turn it Around in Three Months

MagicHave you ever been given a new leadership position and been told to “turn it around in three months”? I know many leaders who have been given a mandate of this nature. It is not uncommon to be given a challenge like this when taking over a new situation. Sometimes the time extends out to six months or a year, but the challenge is still given to the new leader by the superior doing the hiring. Red flags should go up when an assignment of this nature is given. This challenge sounds innocent, albeit aggressive, but it spells trouble for several reasons.

First, the superior is literally saying that the performance of the group under the prior leader was inadequate. The culture did not deliver what was required. You need to know why the culture was so poor. Was it because the previous leader did a bad job, or was it for some other reason?

Second, the superior who is hiring you to turn things around is the same one who was in place when the prior leader failed. You need to know what contribution he made to creating the problems that you are supposed to fix in three months. Chances are pretty good that he had a lot to do with the failure of your predecessor but may be oblivious to that possibility.

Third, why did you receive a specific time frame to “turn it around”? Was three months just an arbitrary figure, or is there some validity to the bogy? Why didn’t your new boss ask you to turn it around in a week, or even a day. What is magic about three months? Is he expecting too much or too little?

Fourth, what does “turn it around” really mean? You need a lot more specific goals than a hackneyed phrase if you are going to succeed. Does the boss expect you to double productivity, or is it more like just make people less frustrated at work? Are there quality or delivery concerns? Is there a customer service issue, or perhaps there are safety issues? You cannot tell what to do until you know what the specific problem is. You also will be unable to determine if you have succeeded with such a vague goal.

With these four problems, it is likely that your new boss is not a very good leader himself, yet you are being challenged to make things better despite working for an individual who is not very astute. That spells trouble from the start.

In a situation like this, the best thing to do is to pin the future boss down on answers to all four of these issues before agreeing to do the job. If you accept the position, you are likely doomed to fail for all four reasons. Having a failure on your scorecard is not good for your long term career.

It is possible through sheer grit and determination, mixed with some outstanding leadership skills on your part to make things a lot better. It is also quite possible that the improvement would be evident long before three months have elapsed. Unfortunately, it is more likely that you will struggle to measure up, and your new boss may be looking to replace you before long.

The antidote to this mess is to force clear objectives and ground rules before agreeing to accept the position. It would be logical to at least have a chat with the former leader about your future boss before accepting the position. If you do not, you run the risk of having a really bad year.

17 Responses to We Want You to Turn it Around in Three Months

  1. andreas andreou says:

    Very good article.Time has to do with environment of the work.Sure the mistakes and the problems is good lessons for everyone and must be avoided.Three months is enough time,but this has to do with the personel-workers.One search to understand the issues or the problems at any level.For sure we must determine everything
    before start,anything.Thanks

  2. Bob Vanourek says:

    Excellent post, as usual.
    My addition would be sequenced as follows: 1. Determine the key metrics the boss wants to use to determine success. Do you agree with them? 2. Figure out the root cause of the problem and discuss it with the boss. 3. Give the boss your realistic estimate of the time needed to fix the root causes, assuming no other true root causes come up and no new outside events impact the fix. 4. Gain boss’ agreement on 1-3. If not, don’t take the task unless you both recognize the risks.
    Hope that’s helpful to what you have already outlined.

    • trustambassador says:

      Good ideas, Bob. We both agree that in order to take this assignment, the person would need more specific information or it would spell disaster. As a consultant I get this kind of vague request all the time, and I always look to identify the contribution to the problem of the person who is wanting me to come in and “fix” things, just as you suggest.

  3. Hi, Bob.

    This is really good advice. I had the Chance to read “American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company.”

    Mullaly found himself in a very similar situation, and was successful only because his boss agreed to back him when it came to changing company culture.

    Highly recommend the book not only for its incredible story, but it can be used as a blueprint for anyone facing this kind of challenge.

    Thanks for the great post!

    • trustambassador says:

      Hi Gordon. Thanks for the bounce back and for the reference to American Icon. I will have to look into that one.

  4. mstrmac711 says:

    Good article Bob. I think someone will write a book about the past twenty years of the flux called Continuous Improvement. Having participated in six different corporate lean initiatives, I can assure you that there is a pattern every single time. Excitement, anxiety, panic, doom, and if the CEO is smart enough to outwit the bean counters redemption. It seems like each initiative must go through the metamorphosis in order to really become lean or to simply join the group of also rans who never quite get to the place where CI can breathe and grow. By the way, my current title is Business Excellence Facilitator. While we do focus a lot on culture change, I have seen three of my leaders disappear in the past year as the finance guys breathe down the necks of the remaining leaders. When will we learn?

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