Uncertainty is growing in the US with coronavirus cases
mounting. California, Illinois, Michigan, and other states have taken serious
actions with shelter-in-place orders, leaving many people wondering how this
will impact them personally as well as their companies and the economy as a
At the same time, we’re reflecting on how much there is to
be grateful for, including the strong relationships we’ve built over 10+ years
with inspiring leaders. These are women and men who focus their careers on running
into the burning building – the company in trouble – learning fast,
listening, assembling resources, providing fresh and objective insights,
developing new plans and actions for survival and ultimately blueprints for a
We recently convened a call with some RED Team execs who shared how they are adapting to new ways to work. Many executives shared experiences on the front lines figuring out how to help combat the virus and also help people work smarter and safer:
Surviving a period of zero or near zero revenue is extraordinarily difficult. The fundamental challenge is how to use time and capital purposefully. Most businesses have multiple constituents with diverse and conflicting interests. There is no one correct course of action. What is beneficial to one constituent is likely to be harmful to another.
Consider the following: The shareholders, owners and founders of a business have invested their own capital, have taken risk and have worked hard to create equity value. These owners could be individuals, institutional investors, private equity groups and hedge funds or could be a publicly owned company. They could be US citizens or foreign entities. Should the protection and retention of owner and shareholder value be the primary and controlling objective?
Our world, our universe is characterized by constant change. Stars are born and die, storms transform the landscape, nations rise and fall, people change over time. In the business world economies grow and collapse, business models evolve, industries transform and even the Top 100 list of leading companies completely changes in a matter of a few years.
But sometimes the speed and scope of change is extremely rapid, its consequences unforeseeable and unpredictable. This makes planning and decision making highly risky because it is so difficult to see what the future holds. “Everybody has a plan,” said championship boxer Mike Tyson, “until they get punched in the face.”
To help explain the often sudden, fluid, rapidly evolving and dynamic forces of change – that “punch in the face” — the U.S. Army War College created the term V.U.C.A. to describe and ultimately deal with highly dynamic, shifting and challenging situations.
We were having a conversation with an executive recently who shared about their experience parachuting into a business that was struggling with operational inefficiencies.
This executive, like many interims, kicked off the assignment by meeting face-to-face with the management team and employees to learn how the business functions, what’s working, and what isn’t. Their findings would turn into an operational roadmap of the business, where they would set out and implement a go-forward plan. When meeting with one team member and learning about what they did, the executive pointed to a process they had in place asking “why do you do that?”
The answer: “Because we’ve always done it that way”
(Alarm bells begin to loudly ring)
Turnarounds aren’t what they used to be.
Like a good spy movie, turnarounds used to center around a strong central figure making things happen. Turnaround stars and distress experts were born, like Stephen Cooper of Enron and Krispy Kreme fame.
In 1985 the Turnaround Management Association started as a conference of company turnaround specialists in Chapel Hill, ultimately creating a rigorous formal program and exam for Certified Turnaround Professionals.
“Back then the time frame for turnarounds was long,” Richard Lindenmuth, an executive who has completed 23 turnarounds over the years said. “There was bridge financing from banks that would facilitate a turnaround and bankruptcy was really used as a tool for restructuring a company.”
Times have changed. Many of the Fortune 500 companies from those days have merged or disappeared due to outdated technology, products, or services (think RCA, Blackberry, Zenith). At the same time, the way to turn around a struggling business has transformed, being driven by several factors:
My daughter eagerly accepted an internship at the morgue. Wait – how does she put it? The medical examiner’s office. Regardless, all I hear is morgue. Anyway, let’s move past the whole your-daughter-is-around-dead-people issue because here’s the interesting thing. They ask their interns to sign a statement agreeing to work pro re nata.
This was a new phrase for me: pro re nata. It is latin for “in the circumstances” or “as needed” or “as the situation arises.”
I believe the phrase is really a guiding light for the best interim execs around the world, because the best leaders operate as needs demand – pro re nata.
The Olympics are the perfect example of the difference between champions who win gold, silver or bronze, and everyone else who goes home empty handed. The winner could be winning by just one ten thousandths of a second.
Why do you think you or I are any different in our work – if we could improve our performance just a couple percentage points, we’d stand out from the masses clear as day.
Steve Jobs was genius at nuance, the subtle improvement that could cause massively asymmetric outcomes in favor of Apple. Thirty companies had MP3 products delivering hardware, software and content for streaming music. The category was done. Then along came the iPod. Not major changes, but so much better!
Everything seemed to be going well for a public software company. Growing at a rate of 50-100% for three years straight, the company was gaining momentum until one day it all came to a screeching halt. Just weeks before the annual 10-k report was due the board uncovered that the CEO and CFO had been taking a few too many creative liberties with expense reports and were stealing money from the company…yes, they were embezzling funds – a nightmare scenario for a public company.
The board went to work, firing both of the full-time executives for cause. They immediately appointed an Interim CEO and reached out to us at InterimExecs to bring in an Interim CFO to help them navigate through murky waters.
“It was a full-fledged crisis that included issues with culture, staff, investors, analysts, debt holders, Board members, auditors, the SEC and activist shareholders,” said a board member.
Most HR execs have been trained to look for candidates who have a track record sticking with companies for long periods of time. For many companies going through upheaval, rapid growth, or dramatic changes in their markets, that long-term permanent employee mindset may actually be more detrimental. When a company must evolve quickly, an executive hired on full-time may not be the right leader nine months or a year down the road.
The speed at which companies move in today’s world to stay relevant has paved the way for the new specialty of interim management, which includes executives focused on operations to finance, technology, sales and marketing. Interims are skilled operators who run, build, grow, and fix businesses. They take on accountability in C-level roles making decisions, reporting to the board, and being held responsible for the results.
Unlike executives who choose long-term, permanent jobs, interims are wired for transformation and usually are called in when companies need a leadership boost to get them on the right path. Once an interim brings an organization, division, or department to a better state of affairs, that new-found clarity and direction gives the HR team a cleaner slate by which to recruit and hire the next permanent person in the role.
Many private equity funds hear the words “interim executive” and think the only application is turnaround or short-term fill-in. But for PE funds seeking a great return, they look to interims for their unique abilities to build and transform companies.
Here are six major use cases for interim executives in PE-owned portfolio companies:
Interim Executives in Diligence
Most funds hope to spread their wings – work beyond industries where they’ve already had success, by looking at new industries where acquisitions may cost less and produce higher returns. The further afield they go, the more they need expert leadership removed from prior operating teams.