Our technology division was in trouble.  Our biggest client served us with a 90-day cure notice or termination.  And the division just lost money for the third month in a row.  That was the backdrop as I walked across our corporate campus as the NEW technology division leader. Your first thought might be, “who would want that role?”   The answer for me was simple – I wanted that role – some of the world’s greatest achievements have come when our backs have been firmly pressed against the proverbial wall.

Failure was imminent.  Losing money and poor service is never a winning combination in any type of business.  In my first meeting with the Technology Leadership Team, I stated I was here to fix the problem and we had 90 days to do it. As we went around the room with each functional leader taking their turn for open discussion, I began to size up the situation.  When we got to the fifth or sixth leader who happened to be in charge of field operations, I got hit with a fair but snarky question; “Hey Brendan, what do you know about running a field services technology division?”   I say snarky because it was dripping with attitude, but it was also fair because I had never run this type of company before.  I kept my answer authentic, direct and confident; “Fair question.  I have no experience running a field services technology company.  I equally don’t have experience getting served a 90-day cure notice. I also don’t have experience losing money three months in a row.  And lastly, I have no plans to gain that experience with all of you.  We will cure our service within 90 days, and we will make money within 60 days. I do have experience turning companies and divisions around.  And I just need to know who is committed to winning, and if you have any doubt we will win, now is your time to speak up.” 

I share this story now because it is timely.  I am part of a CEO Research Group and in this month’s report it stated “26% of companies in 2020 will lose money.”  That one line took my breath away. My heart raced and my head thumped.  One in four companies is in trouble.  And I know firsthand that if these companies embrace their potential failure, they can come out of this global pandemic as real-life superheroes.

As a turnaround executive for 12 years, I developed a methodology for fixing distressed companies and I even named it – rightSIDE up. You have to look at EVERYTHING from the right side, not the wrong side.  The wrong side doesn’t take much looking, it’s there, and for some psychological reason, people really like to talk about it.  “Our market has dried up, our sales team has lost their focus, there is too much pressure on pricing, overseas markets are hurting us,” and more. I am not going to tell you any of those reasons are wrong, I simply don’t know.  But what I do know, is if you focus on them, they will become your reality.  Turn all of those words on the right side and focus on moving up; “we need to identify a new market, we need to better train our sales teams, we need to become more efficient so we can sell our product for 5% less, and we need to compete globally.”   Winning in challenging times, like during a global pandemic, starts with how you frame your situation.  Framing it negatively is wrong.  Framing it positively, is the rightSIDE.

Back to my team at the technology company.  During the first day, we created a series of workstreams focused on understanding the full situation – client, product/service, operations, people, and financial.  Each workstream was given clear direction and 24 hours to come back with the Top 5 Challenges in order of magnitude.  I always take this approach because it is the easiest assignment for everybody to do, the problems were easy to spot, and people would be willing to talk about them. The assignment went very well, with a few teams overachieving and bringing back longer lists.  We discussed these as a group, and then each team was given another 24 hours to solve one of the challenges that was selected by the group based on hearing all of them collectively.

I will fast forward and simplify the story to get at the heart of how failure can motivate.  We determined that each technician was doing 2.3 transactions a day and to become profitable we needed to do 3.0 transactions a day.  We also determined that 18% of our technicians were providing really poor service, which drew our overall performance down with our biggest client. On my 4th day, we held a Town Hall and I outlined our rightSIDE UP plan – starting Monday each technician would complete 3.0 transactions or more per day at an 80% performance score or greater.  Now prior to that Monday, my good friend in operations who had asked me the snarky question kept telling me 3.0 transactions could not be done and he had been trying for over a year to get all scores 80% or higher.  We kicked off the Town Hall and I had 4 PowerPoint slides as the backdrop, and here is how it went:

Slide 1 – We are in TROUBLE

I spoke authentically, transparently and with empathy and explained our service issues and our profitability.

Slide 2 – 3.0 Transactions Everyday

I spoke how we were losing money because we weren’t getting enough billable work done each day.  I didn’t pass judgment, I simply said it as factual and pragmatic.  I also told them some people thought 3.0 transactions per day wasn’t possible, but I did.

Slide 3 – 80% Performance Everyday

I outlined we needed to perform at 80% or better on every call by every technician every day. Again, a simple message with no room for ambiguity

Slide 4 – 60 Day Happy Hour

I had a picture of a cocktail and told them in 60 days we were having a company happy hour.  If we didn’t succeed, we would be toasting and saying our goodbyes as the company would no longer exist. If we won and succeeded, we would be toasting to a brave new future. I told the team: I was planning on a brave new future.

Our technicians did it!  They got to 3.2 transactions per day and got our service levels up.  We made money and our client was healthy again.  But why were our technicians able to do in 60 days what they were unable to do for years?  We turned the fear of failure rightSIDE UP and to our advantage.  We used it as our rallying cry.  The stakes were high, and there was no room for doubt, or uncertainty or fear really.  Each person knew what they had to do.  They just had to do it.  Now keep in mind, as the leader, I never fixed a hard drive, a motherboard or a blown circuit board.  I didn’t perform a single transaction nor get any type of score.  But what I did do was channel my fearlessness and remove fear, uncertainty and doubt in others.

So today, amidst a crazy backdrop of a global pandemic, many of you are facing the same challenge I faced a number of years ago as I walked across that campus.  Embrace this opportunity. This is your opportunity to be a real-life, everyday superhero!  Your team will do more than you could ever imagine.  They will do more than they knew they could do. They will rise to the occasion.  But it all starts with your fearless and contagious leadership.

Be strong, Be fearless. Be a leader.

b FEARLESS