There Is a Difference Between Business Turnaround and Business Transformation. It Is Easy To Tell Which Is Harder

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All companies go through some kind of crisis at some point but what does it take to get out of it? There aren’t many successful turnarounds in large companies and the bigger the company and the longer the history, the more difficult it is for any turnaround and its success rate is lower. 

Harley Davidson in mid-life crisis, when Richard Teerlink joined the company in 1981 as CFO, had US market share of 15% and reported a loss of $15m. The company was killed by its strong Japanese competitor led by Honda. In 1989, he took over as CEO and returned the company’s focus to increasing quality, improving service and producing world-class heavyweight motorcycles.

In the end, it is the product that turned the company around. Harley Davidson recovered its U.S. market share to 50% and posted annual sales of more than $1.7 billion. Teerlink left his post as CEO in 1997, and served on Harley Davidson’s board of directors for another 5 years. He did a great job as a turnaround manager.

The story of IBM’s brush with bankruptcy is another greatest business comeback of all time. IBM’s problem was that it was quickly becoming irrelevant and experiencing zero growth. The company had also made some bets that didn’t work out. Lou Gerstner took control in 1993 and created more focus in the company. He did a great job as a transformation manager.

One lesson here is not mix up a turnaround with a transformation. It’s very important to distinguish between a transformation and a turnaround. A turnaround involves a company that has fallen off the rails and has executed poorly and still competing in the same product/market space. It takes a tough driven executive to make it work.

A transformation is truly a lot more difficult and takes a lot more deep wisdom, with execution playing a secondary role. The company must fundamentally change its mental and operating model. It is a reinvention and companies who are used to doing things their way find it difficult to start doing things differently. This is not a 3 or 6-month initiative. It’s very, very strategic, foresight driven and problematic.

For any successful transformation, it takes leadership rather than management. “I hire people brighter than me and I get out of their way” as Lee Iacocca puts it. I am not sure who said something like “Inventories and supply chain parts can be managed but people must be led.”

I’ve both architected and supported quite a few successful turnarounds behind the scenes as a strategic consultant in my career; my simple advice for transformation leaders is people just don’t care what you know unless they know that you care. You need to earn that by caring and then knowing. It takes inspirational motivation to motivate managers to commit to the vision of the organization, no matter how hard it is to achieve the vision. It also takes intellectual stimulation to foster innovation and creativity to challenge the group-think or yes-think. It is as much an intellectual undertaking, as an executioner exercise.

The world is not ending. Winning for tomorrow requires a vision. Brilliant strategies don’t show up spontaneously particularly for complex and fast moving industries. It comes from strategic dialogues, strategic foresights, options, even failures and mistakes. The ability to see the problem as a whole and then integrate a variety of perspectives, and not a simple quick fix. There is no simple quick fix.

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