Lean On Me

Jun 06, 1994

I watched a movie on T.V. the other night titled “Lean on Me,” starring one of my favorite contemporary actors, Morgan Freeman. Freeman played Joe Clark, the inner-city high school principal who had one year to get two-thirds of his student body to pass a “Minimum Basic Skills” test. Although he started with a mess, in the end, he prevailed. It was a classic turnaround situation, and many of Clark’s tactics could be useful to principals and managers working in troubled A/E/P and environmental consulting firms. Turnarounds require a single, strong leader. The first thing Clark did was get all of his teachers together and let them know that he, and only he, was in charge. He did not create a committee to study the school’s performance problems, but instead enacted a state of “martial law.” Although there certainly are exceptions, most A/E and environmental firms having multiple owners— none of whom controls a majority of stock— could benefit from being less democratic. We waste too much time getting everyone’s support before doing anything. And all too often, the support is superficial, and the passive-aggressive resistors get their way in the end, anyway. Turnarounds require a good house cleaning. One of the first things Joe Clark did was throw out the kids that were lazy or caused trouble. That made it easier for the remaining students to succeed. He realized that the no-good students were dragging down the good students. He was more concerned about the welfare of the school and the good students than he was the bad ones. We need more of that thinking in this business! Just about every firm I go into has people on the payroll that haven’t carried their weight for years. It’s sad that top management lets these people drag down the rest of the firm because no one wants to be “mean.” And we’re not doing the non-performers any favor, either. Every day that goes by makes it harder for them to start over somewhere else, doing something they like better or find more rewarding. Turnarounds require that management accepts blame for the current state of affairs. Joe Clark called all of his teachers together and told them that they were failing, that they were responsible for the kids’ poor performance. He didn’t blame the terrible home situations, the crime problem, or drugs. Sure, he acknowledged that it was a hostile environment, but that didn’t change his feeling that the school and the teachers were responsible. The same goes for an A/E or environmental consulting firm. When things get bad, rarely is the staff the problem, though I’ve heard more than one principal in my day cry that. The problem is management, and I’m talking about top management. Like anyone who has a problem, the first step to recovery is to accept responsibility for it. When things go sour we need to look at ourselves more rather than looking for someone else to blame. Turnarounds require a heavy dose of discipline. Clark was a fanatic about order. He repainted the entire school and got the students on detention to help out with the cleaning. He also demanded every student learn the school song. He knew the students would be better equipped for life if he forced some discipline on them. He also knew the teachers would be better off if they felt that they, too, could be successful. As an industry, A/E and environmental firms have a long way to go with discipline— architectural and environmental consulting firms, in particular. We allow people to work in disorder approaching squalor. Managers get away without doing their staff’s performance appraisals. People charge time to marketing and don’t turn in a client contact report. Job numbers are issued without having a contract. All of this happens because we have no discipline. We are afraid to insist on anything for fear someone will get upset. But my reaction to that is: “Why are you so worried about getting those people upset? They obviously don’t care if they upset you (by not complying).” Turnarounds take a good team. While a strong leader is required, the rest of the team is important, too. Everyone has to do their part to make the organization a success. To get the most out of everyone, you can’t scream at them all of the time— you can’t use just “the stick.” You need “the carrot,” too. Clark forgot that until his assistant principal set him straight. Most engineers, architects, and scientists could benefit from a little sensitivity training. Everyone appreciates a “please,” a “thanks,” and a little recognition for putting in the extra effort. Money always says “thank you” in a meaningful way, but that requires that the firm be a success. First comes the performance, then the rewards. Turnarounds require a leader who can take the heat. As I’m sure you can imagine, some of what Clark did wasn’t popular in the school and with the community. Lots of people were out to get him. But he didn’t care. His allegiance was to the students and to his boss. Fortunately for Clark, he had some friends in high places who were able to defend him just long enough that he could be successful. The same applies to our business. Turnarounds seem to be the most successful when initiated by an inside CEO— usually someone who is new to the job but not to the company— with some outside help and intervention from a good consultant or outside board member. Outside CEOs (i.e., those hired from the outside) often fail because they don’t have the strong political base required to buy the time that they need to emerge victorious in the end. Originally published June 6, 1994

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