Starting a new company or turning around a struggling business have a lot more similarities than many people realize. A typical day at an early-stage startup or the kick-off of a turnaround process have always made me think of a wildland smokejumper parachuting into the middle of a raging forest fire, with the key part of each being the need to quickly assess the situation, make decisions, and act decisively to put out as many fires as possible — especially those closest to the team — while you work on solving the bigger, more strategic, challenge at hand.
Not surprisingly, it is incredibly hard work that takes the kind of determination, persistence, and stamina that most people don’t even know they have. And there will always be moments where progress, choices, or the future seems so grim that you can’t say for certain whether you’ll actually be able to accomplish what you’ve set out to do — unless you simply press on, persevere, and make it happen.
I’ve always thought a firefighter analogy is appropriate for start-ups and turnarounds because while business owners in these situations are not necessarily facing life and death decision, the intense stress and pressure to make decisions and get things done with only partial information about external and internal threats requires leadership, teamwork, and focus on which tactical fires need to be extinguished or minimized while you work on the larger, more strategic, goal of creating, fixing, and growing your company into one that is going to be as successful as possible.
For me, the many challenges, opportunities, setbacks & successes that I’ve seen and experienced over the years have taught me a lot about what it takes to both build a company from scratch or completely upset the status quo and fix a failing business. And each and every one of these tests have not only made me a better leader, they have also enabled me and my teammates to ensure we made every organization we founded or fixed a huge success or a much better place than it was before we arrived.
There is no single secret to success or repeat success, but I firmly believe that there are three key tasks for any start-up or turnaround leader to accomplish before he or she can make a difference and create (or recreate) a healthy organization that will succeed and thrive—versus one that has no real future.
Put together your dream-team
If you want to put out a huge forest fire, go to the World Series, or put a man on the moon, you cannot do it alone—you must create, lead, and inspire a team that will make that happen. There is no such thing as an army of one.
The longevity of a company depends on the people who are working diligently behind-the-scenes every day. Your success depends on your team; the stronger your team is, the more stable your growth will be. When you’re figuring out who to add to your team, your objective should be to put together the very best team possible. To do that, you need to make time for personal interviews and vetting. Don’t settle for “average” or an adequate candidate simply because you need bodies to fill a much-needed role.
Every hiring decision you make will directly impact your success. If you hire the wrong people, it will come back to bite you; but if you hire the right one, they will create an even bigger team of like-minded doers, thinkers, and leaders who will not only get the job done, but will ensure everyone has a great future ahead.
Taking it back to basics
Leaders are visionaries; they are big-picture thinkers and tend to focus on the future rather than what’s right in front of them. If you run a company, these are traits you have to have. But that doesn’t excuse leaders from making sure they understand the very basics of their business first.
How can you run a team, interact with customers, or create a market need if you don’t know the core of your own business inside and out? To do that, and do it well, you need to first ask yourself: why does your company exist? What are you selling or doing? For whom? What are the most basic drivers of revenue, costs, operational excellence, customer satisfaction, employee happiness, shareholder returns? How do you measure and reward people for achieving those KPIs?
Focus on the “hard” stuff
Once you understand your business model and you have a great team to help drive results and win market share, you then need to focus on harder, more difficult issues, like the core infrastructure of your business, so you can create or fix hidden, but fundamental systems, processes, contracts, and other things which will create, drive, or improve long-term success and sustainable profitability.
Unfortunately business, like life, does not always work sequentially, and for you to succeed in starting a new company or turning a ship away from dangerous waters, all three of the tasks noted above must be completed quickly, decisively, and simultaneously — if you want to have any hope of surviving, and most importantly succeeding and thriving.
If a company is in a poor spot, it’s likely because your leadership team, or those who were there before you, weren’t focused on these three pillars — all of which are crucial to the foundation of your company. Simply put, if these tasks and goals are not a priority, you’ll never have a stable base from which you can achieve your objectives or grow your business.