Survival guide for salvaging a struggling team

Your new job is a poisoned chalice, topped up with arsenic and served with a slice of polonium. It is clear that the company or team you are going to manage have serious problems. Competitors are stealing market share, revenue is falling, service levels are shocking and morale is low. 

The challenge of turning this leaky ship around may seem overwhelming, but it offers a great opportunity to make a real difference. 

Do your homework

Before you start at a new job, learn as much as you can about the company’s position and your new colleagues. For example, you can compile a photo book with the names and profile pictures of the people you will work with, says prof. Jannie Rossouw, head of the School of Economic and Business Sciences at Wits University. “Learn their names and as much as you can about them before your first day in the new job. This will help establish good relationships with your new colleagues.” 

Be clear on what you are supposed to achieve

Request a meeting with your boss or the board to make sure you understand what your goals should be and how your performance will be measured. 

Don’t come in all guns blazing

Assess, then act. Ensure you have considered all the facts before you take any decision or express a strong view. Drastic action in your first few days will only disconcert and alienate your colleagues. Also, be careful not to show favouritism. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Asking lots of questions is not a sign of weakness. If you don’t understand, ask for an explanation. It will give your new colleagues a chance to demonstrate their domain knowledge and help them to connect with you.  

Establish purpose

All the employees should know what the purpose of your company and their work is: what needs are the company fulfilling? What is their role in achieving this purpose? People need to know why their work is important, says Rossouw. “Purpose is a powerful motivator.” 

Create a change story

When you have formulated a turnaround strategy, condense it into a simple narrative (one or two sentences) and share it with colleagues. Anyone in the company should be able to recite what this strategy is. Remind your team of this “change story” at every occasion. You will achieve much greater buy-in from your team if they know that there is a plan to cope with the current challenges. 

Establish rapport with your colleagues

If you understand what motivates the people on your team, and have a good relationship with them, it will be much easier to get them to rally behind your plan for the company. “Make sure you connect in some small way with each of the people you work with,” says Rossouw. 

Build momentum with quick wins

Set your team small goals in the first couple of weeks (for example, cutting costs on a specific project) and celebrate their achievements. Also, break down problems into smaller, more digestible projects, to avoid people becoming overwhelmed by all the challenges.  

Show that you can get things done

When you have a clear grasp of the situation and what needs to be done, take decisive action and don’t hesitate to tell the truth. This will earn you respect and trust. 

Execute all the hard decisions within 100 days

his is crucial, says Rossouw. For example, if retrenchments are necessary, you have to execute it within the first 100 days. “Thereafter you will already be too involved with the people you work with to make the hard calls.” 

Don’t redecorate your office

If the company is under financial pressure and you are emphasising cutting costs, lead by example, says Rossouw. “Don’t buy new furniture for your office and be careful of your own conspicuous consumption – now is not a good time to buy a new car.” 

Stress-test your own strategy

Make sure you are on the right path by putting performance milestones in place. Give yourself a target (for example, revenue, cash flow and market share) to achieve at a future date. At that time, review the impact of your strategy on these measures. If you haven’t achieved the target, be open to changing your strategy to address its shortcomings. 

Be present and visible

A manager needs to be in the office and approachable at all times, says Rossouw. “Having a leader present is reassuring to a team.” 

Focus on cash

In the end, a successful turnaround comes down to cash flow – not whether everyone likes you. Make sure that all your efforts are focused on stabilising and growing the business. 

Build morale

When there is a lot of stress, conflict, anger, fear and resentment around it is a sign that employees’ “emotional tanks” are running empty, says Karen van Zyl, a consultant at The Anger and Stress Management Centre in Pretoria and Sandton. “Help to fill their emotional tanks during these challenging times by making others feel supported, appreciated, cared for, trusted, secure, understood, acknowledged, valued, listened to and respected.” Also consider injecting a dose of fun into the office, Van Zyl adds. “Having some fun together is the glue teams need to weather difficult times.” 

This article originally appeared in the 22 September edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.


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