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Managing a turnaround.

Understand staff and member motivation, and triumph over turbulent times.

All organizations have life cycles. They are born, develop, mature, face crises of identity, and then are reborn. In the association world, these cycles are often triggered by turnaround situations, such as changes in volunteer leadership, mergers, or financial crises.

I have experienced several turnaround situations in my association management career. Each required an intense, organization-wide focus on changes needed to stabilize the association and reaffirm its mission as relevant and vital. The key to managing a turnaround challenge successfully is a constant focus on the human resources involved and on the factors that are motivating the people who will create and manage the association's future.

The staff at stake

Potentially, the biggest victims and winners in turnarounds are the association staff members. They are the survivors of the crisis that led to dramatic change, and they cannot help but fear for their jobs and career status.

The biggest mistakes are failure to use staff resources well, to recognize and to deal sensitively with the stress encountered by staff, and to take advantage of the contributions existing staff can make to renewal of an association.

On the other hand, I have personally experienced and seen phenomenal growth in individual capability and career development when individuals were respected and challenged by the turnaround manager. My personal roles in these situations were as an affected staff person and most recently as the chief staff executive.

As a manager, I find it useful to refer frequently to the fundamentals of human motivation outlined by Abraham Maslow and Frederick Herzberg. Maslow, in his work Motivation and Personality, asserts that when a need is satisfied, it no longer motivates behavior.

According to his hierarchy of needs, when physiological and security needs are satisfied, humans operate at higher levels, seeking to satisfy needs for ego satisfaction and actualization.

Herzberg stresses the need to deal with "dissatisfiers" and to recognize that highest individual motivation comes from achievement, recognition, and responsibility--all of which help further organizational goals. His approach is explained in the book The Motivation to Work, co-authored with Bernard Mausner and Barbara Snyderman.

In a turnaround, expect the staff and the member leaders to operate at Maslow's basic security level. They need the comfort of assured stability, permanence, and a solid financial base before they can concentrate on innovation and growth. But you, the manager, are at your potentially highest level of motivation and self-actualization.

Fortunately, a system exists to deal effectively with what may be a mismatch between the motivational states of the leader and his or her potential followers.

A management system

A turnaround has four stages: (1) initial entry, (2) sizing up, (3) the "honeymoon," and (4) settling in.

For each of the four turnaround stages, look at the motivational factors that affect (1) the manager, (2) the staff, and (3) the members. After considering these, rely on a management process to take you through each stage with full recognition of the human elements involved.

A recent turnaround experience of mine put this turnaround management system to the test. An industry outsider, I was chosen to manage a merger of two similar associations, one of which was in the process of moving into a joint facility. The now single staff had been buffeted with rumors, disappointments, and uncertainties about the organization and even about its leadership, as the initial CEO served only three months and left because of an illness.

Initial entry: motivation

You, the manager. If you're like I was, you'll have a degree of anxiety and, at the same time, a sense of elation and confidence the first day in your new role.

The staff. Think about the first day you watched a new CEO arrive. There was both fear and elation. Now, with some skepticism, comes hope that the organization can get on with business. But there is also a sense of vulnerability linked to the wish for security and acceptance by the new CEO.

The members. Although member leaders realize new CEOs need time to establish themselves, they, too, are somewhat anxious. They also want inside information and stay close to those staff members they deal with frequently.

Initial entry: management

Personal style and behavior. Your first job is to demonstrate you care about your staff's emotions and concerns. Communicate humility and the desire to listen and understand concerns, beliefs, and recommendations.

Also strive to be a consummate observer. You have an opportunity to watch and appraise people, with full understanding that they are operating in a stressful environment. This style and behavior will help put your staff at ease.

Probably the most important event in the initial entry stage is your opening meeting with either the staff as a whole or the principal management team. Plan carefully for this meeting. Know your agenda, keep your message short, and be prepared to listen.

Try to anticipate the questions you will receive and develop your responses in advance. You'll likely be quizzed on an entire spectrum of concerns ranging from your preferred office hours and suggested dress codes to views on organizational goals. Shy away from specifics and stress a process of staff involvement and joint decisions. After all, it's only the first day.

Management techniques. In a recent situation, I approached the initial entry stage with a questionnaire I had developed for all staff members. (If the organization is large, you can limit this to key management levels.) A short introductory letter attached to the questionnaire outlined my plans. It read, in part:

"Over the next couple of weeks I want to get a good feel for your activities and aspirations, and the important programs and issues you are working on. You can make that possible by answering the questions I have outlined on the attachment. Don't worry about a formal response. You can give it to me in outline or bullets form, typed or handwritten. Over the next few days I will be visiting with each of you just to talk. Give these questions some thought now to guide our discussion . . . ."

The questionnaire had several benefits. I got to know the staff members quickly. It also gave me an idea of the writing and organizational skills of each, as well as their adaptability to change and interest in self-development. The personal discussions that followed gave me an opportunity to gauge basic personality styles and develop a sense of rapport with staff members.

One of the hazards of this approach is that it bypasses traditional reporting relationships. It is essential, however, because at the outset it avoids any filtering through current managers and may illuminate some communication problems.

Managing the initial entry stage of a turnaround situation takes about two weeks. If you're an outsider, the process provides an initial impression of staff and of critical association problems and opportunities. Even if you're an insider, this process will help define your role as a leader--no longer are you just a peer.

Sizing up: motivation

You, the manager. Once you have a sense of the organization, you're eager to take action. I was tempted to rush through each problem--integration of data bases, consolidation of dues systems, sorting out of staff duplication, redesign of the newsletter--and sometimes lost patience with the important need to listen to staff ideas and brainstorm new approaches. At the same time, you are aware of the magnitude of the challenge and wonder where to begin.

The staff. In the first few days, many inevitably fear their jobs are at stake. When this fear passes, individuals regain confidence and begin to assert their ideas for growth and recognition.

Staff members watch you carefully. They are curious if the tone you set in the first few days is sincere. They want to be informed about actions that have a direct impact on them, such as restructuring and reassignments, office moves, and changes in the mix of association programs. Senior staff members, especially, want to know how you will use them, and whether opportunities exist to maintain and expand their current responsibilities.

The members. As in the initial stage, key members want to know that things are going well and to be informed about the progress. Leaders should understand the need to keep hands off while you establish your program and your style.

Sizing up: management process

Personal style and behavior. You can now begin to establish your personal management style. Realize that you operate in a fishbowl and that now is a good time to communicate your expectations to the staff.

Use this period for determining the depth of problems, staff strengths and weaknesses, and overall capabilities of the staff. Additionally, look for ways that staff members interact with each other, and assess their individual abilities to be team players.

I used "MBWA"--managing by walking around. I took the time to visit every staff person's office. I asked what project each was working on, and listened carefully to their ideas.

Management techniques. A good way to evaluate staff abilities individually and in a team context is to establish task groups to deal with various problem situations and proposals for action related to the turnaround process. I have found the key to the sizing-up stage is dispersing responsibility among staff and giving them a variety of roles, including team and project leadership.

As a new CEO, I recently established about 12 task groups and made sure staff members were involved in several, including a leadership role in one or more. These included an annual meeting planning team, a publications review group, an office equipment assessment group, an office automation team, and even a files identification and retention policy team.

I stressed the importance of teamwork and established deadlines and mileposts for gauging the progress of each team.

This stage is also a good time to identify and work with your senior management team. Through scheduled staff meetings with controlled agendas, use this team to get feedback on staff concerns and to make necessary corrections. This step underscores the importance you place on senior staff, even though you may have concurrently dispersed responsibility and activity among other less-senior staff members.

It's also a good idea to hold a general staff meeting once a week. Rotating the chairmanship among staff members provides leadership training.

Up to this point in managing a turnaround situation, the focus has largely been internal. In my recent CEO assignment, I began to look to the outside for advice and information early in the sizing-up stage.

I made it a point to get on the phone and talk to key leaders and influential members. I used any phone conversation with members as a way to get a feel for the industry or profession and for their perceptions about organizational needs. In the second week on the job, I sent out a general letter to the membership to introduce myself, ask for input, and explain my diverse background in managing association turnaround situations.

In my most recent experience I also wrote a weekly letter to the association president for about three months, outlining my actions, significant problems I foresaw, and results. I also included a sample of internal correspondence, including staff agendas, to be sure he was aware of the full range of activity. This information can also be shared with the executive committee or other selected leaders of the organization.

The sizing-up stage of the turnaround process will be characterized by high energy, a flurry of activity in many directions, a great deal of interaction, and a challenge to the effective use of personal and organizational time.

I strongly recommend managers resist any inclination to restructure the organization at this stage. It is a time for tolerance of ambiguity.

Although many staff will be uncomfortable with this seeming disorder, you need the time to think through alternatives and to fully evaluate the abilities of staff. It may be helpful, however, to make small decisions that yield tangible results to demonstrate you're capable of decisive actions.

The honeymoon: motivation

You, the manager. As you approach this stage you want to establish your own agenda. You also probably feel the need to be involved in the industry or profession and the overall community. In short, you tire of philosophy and want to get on with the program.

The staff. The staff feel more comfortable with you and more secure about their own positions. Yet they are anxious to know where they stand in the long-term overall organizational framework because you have not yet confirmed the structure and reporting relationships. They may have discovered new personal talents through the task group process and want to put them into play.

The members. Member leaders want to see your initial plans. Although you have kept them informed, they feel it is time to become more hands-on again.

The honeymoon: management

Personal style and behavior. Your biggest challenge at this point is to manage the process of gradually withdrawing from high-intensity, individual contact with most of the staff to a more established relationship with key managers. Don't abandon the MBWA style, however.

By now, the staff is familiar with your personal management style. But that doesn't mean you should stop teaching and training. Your role as leader of the association is an ongoing, never-ending process.

Make sure the staff clearly understands your wishes and ask for direct feedback on that understanding. Introduce the practice of active listening, which requires both parties to work together to achieve meaningful communication. This process requires listeners to exercise patience and understanding and to refrain from making judgments when a thought or idea is being communicated. Ask staff to paraphrase and restate what you've said to make sure they are correctly interpreting your wishes.

Management techniques. The beginning of the honeymoon stage is a time to deal with perhaps the toughest part of your turnaround challenge--termination of employees. Consult your legal counsel to avoid the perils of wrongful discharge. Also look for creative ways to encourage employees who do not have the ability to innovate and adapt or whose functions are no longer necessary, to see the positive aspects of change for them as well.

To guide the organizational restructuring process, draw on the observations made by your staff members during the task group process described earlier. Also call on your senior staff team to help you develop your plans.

Promote from within wherever possible. This sends an important signal to staff and to members of your commitment to those who perform well.

Once a new structure is in place, consider holding a staff advance (sometimes known as a retreat). If a strategic plan exists, use the advance to review it and develop proposed modifications.

Otherwise, have staff work through the classic strategic planning process--evaluation of the external and internal environment, statement of a mission and objectives, creation of action plans, and development of a relationship among action plans, budgets, and individual staff performance plans.

The net result is a plan in which the staff can take personal pride and ownership. You are now in a position to launch the new program for the organization. The turnaround is well under way.

This stage is also a good time to heighten the intensity of your external relationships, particularly if you are new to the industry or profession. Most members and outside folks understand your need to concentrate on internal matters for a period of time. But that period of grace is almost over.

I scheduled visits with a number of leaders, members, other constituent groups, opinion leaders of the industry, and even antagonists. I sought to establish a style of visibility and accessibility.

Relationships with the media are also important. Assess your association's external image, as expressed in magazines or newsletters. If you want to establish a new logo or a new look, now is a good time to do it. A new look will help you establish the future image and style of the organization.

Also look for an opportunity to make a public statement about the organization in a visible forum. This gives you an opportunity to establish a tone and foster an understanding of your goals and mission. It will promote an image of stability in the face of the inevitable changes that occur with new leadership.

Settling-in stage: motivation

You, the manager. There may be a letdown after the feverish pace of decision making and problem solving. Now begins the process of achieving results over the long haul.

As the leader of your organization, you realize the practical limitations of your vision and hopes. Settling in requires patience, careful focus on day-to-day progress toward ultimate results, and a growing trust and reliance on your staff.

You may experience your first serious confrontation, failure, or disagreement with a key association member leader. Be prepared for a potential rebuff and use it to reestablish a strong shared relationship between you and the leaders of your organization.

Up to this point, they have likely given you full rein. You can now expect them to want to share power more equally. Remember the old adage--it's not your association; it's theirs. Don't take yourself too seriously, and try a heavy dose of humility.

Establish the nature of your ongoing relationship with key staff members. Given the strong control and direction that a new CEO exercises in the initial stages of a turnaround, it's common for staff to continue to look to you to make decisions they are capable of making. Start delegating.

The staff. The restructuring process, formalization of reporting relationships, and development of individual performance plans give staff the green light: Staff members now want to take charge of their own program areas. As their confidence grows, they are prepared to take more risks and continue to look for rewards. Expect staff members to be motivated by recognition and specific results; your feedback continues to be important.

The members. Association leaders seek more participation and involvement. They also want more of the power you have exercised to this point. At the same time, they want guarantees that the problems that triggered the turnaround situation will not recur. They also want to actually see the difference between the organization as it was and the organization you have promised it will be in the future.

Settling in: management

Personal style and behavior. It takes time to convince your team that delegation means delegation and you're ready to put full trust in them. Look for ways to withdraw from day-to-day direction and decision making wherever possible. For example, if a staff member asks your permission to initiate breakout sessions, respond, "You're in charge of this seminar. What do you think?"

You need the best thinking of your staff. Stress confidence in their ability to work together and to develop key recommendations for the staff management team. Be available to listen to and resolve irreconcilable conflicts.

With respect to your leadership, concentrate on frequent and thorough communication. Give strong attention to finances and to program results. These are the ultimate measures of whether the turnaround has been successful. Wherever you can, shift the board agenda from internal, administrative issues to substantive policy issues.

Finally, at the close of your first year, prepare an annual report that highlights accomplishments. And begin to introduce (or reintroduce) member involvement in a strategic planning process.

A turnaround process is likely to be heavily staff driven. No matter what your philosophy on staff versus member driven, now focus on making sure members fully influence and shape the ultimate future of the organization.

You have played a major role in turning it around. Now it's up to you to make sure not only that the organization experiences a rebirth, develops, and matures, but also that it remains vital to its members.

Gene S. Bergoffen, CAE, is executive vice president of the National Private Truck Council, Alexandria, Virginia.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Bergoffen, Gene S.
Publication:Association Management
Date:Dec 1, 1991
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