The Top Trait Every CEO Must Have

You can’t run a successful company without it. I can’t do my job turning companies around without it. And once it’s lost, it can be almost impossible to get it back.

I’m talking about credibility. Every CEO must have that – with his employees, his board, his customers, his investors and his employees. And he must guard and protect it as a valuable asset.

As Warren Buffett said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

I urge every CEO I work with and every company’s senior management to maintain a high level of credibility. The consequences if they don’t can be catastrophic.

I once replaced a very smart man, who was CEO of a company that manufactured electronics parts. Despite the fact he had a PhD, he wasn’t too smart when it came to running his business. Upon reviewing his numbers one day he found some cost accounting discrepancies and realized he was selling his primary widget under cost. Instead of having a $1 million profit as anticipated, the company actually had a $2 million loss.

Rather than admit his mistakes, he just adjusted his prices. His customers weren’t thrilled with the unexpected and unexplained 50 percent price increase he put on that widget and fled. Faced with more losses, the bank soon noticed he wasn’t able to repay his loans and gave him the boot as well. We were brought in late in the process, and were able to sell the company and repay the lender and creditor. But the business lost $8 million in equity.

Had the CEO come clean about the mistake, been honest with his bank and his customers, he could have avoided the losses his ego cost him. He wasn’t. And he didn’t. His credibility was shot.

Through no action of my own, I almost suffered the same fate at a company I has hired to assess prior to becoming the director of reorganization. The president of that company didn’t like the fact I was doing an assessment of the company and wanted me to keep out of his business. So he decided to destroy my credibility.

How did he do that? The chairman of the board gave me specific people to speak with about certain issues. So the president told senior staff members I had already made up my mind about how I would restructure each of their divisions. That was untrue, of course, as I always speak openly with people and listen to their thoughts before making any decisions. But in their minds I was just wasting their time.

Thankfully, with the help of another senior staff member, I was able to salvage that situation.

An article in Forbes, “The Three Qualities a CEO Must Have to Success” addresses the issue of credibility and how critical it is to success.

“CEOs who lose credibility can never regain it. When you communicate, do people believe that you are telling them the objective truth? If they do, then you have credibility. To maintain credibility, you have to tell the truth 100 percent of the time. Telling the truth 90 percent of the time is not much better than telling the truth 10 percent of the time. It only takes a few instances of delivering non-credible statements to totally lose your credibility. Once you lose your credibility, you cannot lead successfully.”

My book, How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEO’s Mistakes, is now available as an ebook.

Funny, But True: Having a Blast

Well, at least some people thought it was funny. I didn’t happen to be one of them.

I was in a staff meeting of a steel company where I was the chief restructuring officer. The company was not doing well for multiple reasons and was facing a huge cash crisis.

We had decided our only option at this point was to reduce the 2,500-person workforce by at least 10 percent to keep the company competitive, a tragic outcome for those 250 workers and their families. We were also going to have to reduce union employee benefits, which we had discussed the day before with the union representative.

All of a sudden, I hear BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! In shock, I quickly hit the floor, only to find I was the only one there. When I got back up, the other senior staff at the table were laughing at me.

I was right to duck – those were shotgun blasts that smashed into the windows. But none of them made it through the bulletproof windows the company had installed 20 years previously. It seems shotgun blasts were a frequent means of expression for unhappy union members.

So here’s some free advice. If your workers are routinely so unhappy they are shooting at senior staff, rather than spending money installing bulletproof windows, spend time thinking about rethink how you are managing the company.

My book, How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEO’s Mistakes, is now available as an ebook.

3 Tips to Help Ensure Your Company Recovers from Bankruptcy

“Capitalism without bankruptcy is like Christianity without hell,” said US astronaut Frank Borman and former Chairman and CEO of Eastern Airlines.

While I understand where he is going with that, I wouldn’t explain bankruptcy quite that harshly. True, like hell, no one wants to go there. But there is an escape and it doesn’t have to feel like you are stuck in eternal flames. Or whatever your version of hell may be.

Sometimes the best option to preserve your company is to file bankruptcy. Your business can emerge strong, with happy employees and your reputation intact. Here are three tips on how to accomplish that.

  1. Keep a positive attitude 

I learned this from one of my first turnarounds, a story I tell in my book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes.”  Cheerleader Supply, a $65 million a year company with 750 employees, made cheerleading uniforms and supplies and directed camps nationwide. It fell on hard times and I was called in to see it through a Chapter 11 restructuring.

That CEO taught me the value of being a cheerleader in your company as he keeps a positive attitude throughout. When the home team is down, the cheerleaders get up and motivate the crowd, right? They don’t head to the nearest Starbucks and call it a night.

When a company is going through bankruptcy, employees are scared and nervous, which leads to lower productivity. You need your team to be on top of their game. And that requires pep talks. You need to keep your team inspired and motivated so they will keep working hard for you.

I’m happy to report that Cheerleader Supply successfully emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and I learned that a positive attitude from the leader is crucial.

  1. Be transparent with your employees about what is going on

Another way to keep your employees motivated is to be transparent with them about what is happening. If you and your senior management are meeting behind closed doors and not communicating with your employees, you are fueling the panic and the rumor machine.

People can handle a lot if you are honest with them. What they can’t handle is lack of information. If you don’t let them know what is happening, they will spend a lot of time filling in the blanks themselves, time they could have been working to help your company.

  1. Keep your reputation by communicating with your investors, vendors and customers

To follow up on #2, you also need to communicate with your other constituents, including your investors, vendors and customers.

United Airlines filed for bankruptcy in 2002, then the largest bankruptcy filing by any airline. Prior to filing, the CEO flew to Chicago to meet with employees, while top executives flew to other hub cities. Then after they filed for bankruptcy, the company took out full-page ads in major newspapers around the country explaining the situation and what they were doing about it.

By being open and communicating with all its constituents, United Airlines came out of bankruptcy with its reputation intact a little more than three years later. Its reported net income last year was $4.5 billion.

Back to that quote about hell. Maybe filing for bankruptcy does feel like that. But remember what Winston Churchill said. “If you are going through hell, keep going.”

5 Reasons CEOS Wait Too Long to Address Problems

The worst cases in my career in the turnaround industry are when I work with businesses that could have been saved. If only we had been called in earlier. Those are the ones that really bother me, because these business failures didn’t have to happen. Had we been brought in earlier, we could have determined where the problems were and had many more options to fix them.

But often we are like firefighters who are called in after a home is in ashes, rather than at the first sign of smoke. Then all we can do is sift through the ashes.

Sometimes the best we can do is to get the most for a business in bankruptcy or through a fire sale, pun intended. And I always think, “If only they had called us earlier.”

The saying we have is “If the alligators are snapping, it’s too late to drain the swamp.” You have to pay attention when things are going wrong and fix them early on, before they become larger problems later, possibly even insurmountable.

If you catch a problem early, you have options. You can drain the swamp. But if you wait too late and the alligators have moved in, well, now you have to face them head on. Those alligators aren’t going to just relocate and find food elsewhere.

So why do CEOs and business owners wait until it’s too late to ask for help? Here are five reasons:

  1. Hoping the situation will change

Your sales manager isn’t meeting his quota and he is experiencing a lot of turnover in his department. He keeps promising he’ll hire more sales reps and “we’ll exceed our quota next month!” But he doesn’t and the competition is taking over your accounts. He should have been fired or refocused and now your competition is taking your accounts.

  1. Thinking you can fix it yourself

When I get time, I can focus on the problems in our accounting system, you think. It’s not working correctly and you aren’t getting the financial information you need to make the best decisions for your company. If you could only take a day to focus on where the problem is and what you need to do to solve it. Every day comes and goes, each with its own set of priorities, and you never do get around to focusing on the issues with accounting. And your business is suffering.

  1. Not wanting to admit mistakes

Sometimes with big jobs comes big egos. And an unwillingness to admit that you’ve made a mistake. Larry, the CEO of seminar company, hated change and would not admit to mistakes. He firmly believed that people were more likely to respond to the hundreds of thousands of mailings he sent if they were posted from their home states. So he had trucks driving hundreds of miles so mailings would carry a local postmark, to the cost of around $400,000 a year.

Fortunately, I was called into this company in time, and despite the fact their EBITDA was -$4 million, I was able to pull off a successful turnaround.

  1. Reluctance to ask for help

Some people see it as a sign of weakness to ask for help. As reported in the article “Why is Asking for Help So Difficult” in the New York Time, “There is a tendency to act as if it’s a deficiency,” said Garret Keizer, author of ‘Help: The Original Human Dilemma.’ “That is exacerbated if a business environment is highly competitive within as well as without. There is an understandable fear that if you let your guard down, you’ll get hurt, or that this information you don’t know how to do will be used against you.”

  1. Denial of the problems

It’s the head-in-the-sand tendency. “Calvin and Hobbes” creator Bill Watterson said, “It’s not denial. I’m just selective about the reality I accept.”

The sooner you accept your reality, the quicker you can get help. You don’t want to come face to face with those alligators.

Want People to Work for You? Make Them Feel Heard

They have 14,000 employees. And more clamoring to come on board.

Under Armour was recently included on LinkedIn’s U.S. list of Top Attractors, the top 40 companies at attracting and keeping the best employees. In an article referencing the inclusion, “To Thrive at Under Armour, You Have to Answer Kevin Plank’s Three Questions,” I found out one of the reasons why more people want to join the ranks at the sports clothing and accessories company with close to $4 billion in revenue.

The three questions management is encouraged to ask after every meeting or conversation are:

  • This is what I heard
  • This is what I think
  • This is what we are going to do

The goal of the questions, Kevin said, is to make sure you heard and understood what people said. With this method you don’t waste time on miscommunication, you facilitate buy-in and people feel their ideas have been heard, a huge factor in employee morale and retention.

My favorite method for clear communication is the whiteboard. I’m a huge fan of the whiteboard, even writing a whole chapter on its use in my book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes.”

For more reasons I love the whiteboard, please read my post “The Value of the Low-Tech Whiteboard in a High-Tech World.” Good luck with your new and improved communication.

 

My Moves Like Jagger

They must be getting some kind of satisfaction. The last three tours of The Rolling Stones grossed $401 million. Fifty-four years after childhood friends Mick Jagger and Keith Richards first formed what has been called the World’s Greatest Band, the band is still performing and drawing record crowds.

So I was interested in an article written by Rich Cohen in the Wall Street Journal recently called “The Rolling Stone’s Guide to Business Success.” This band  has been “among the most dynamic, profitable and durable corporations in the world,” he writes. They must have learned a thing or two along the way.

I agreed with many of the five lessons he targets from the long and successful career of the band. I’d like to focus on one in particular.

Cut the anchor before it drags you down

 Blues guitar player Brian Jones formed The Rolling Stones with Mick, Keith and pianist Ian Stewart, joined soon by bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts joined. They played their first gig at the Marquee Club in London in July 1962.

A rebellious middle-class young man, Brian could reportedly master an instrument in a single day. He was leader of the band and also served as its manager.

But he soon adopted too much of the rock star persona, doing drugs and not showing up for sessions. As Keith Richards said in an interview in the Rolling Stone magazine, “I enjoyed his company, and I tried incredibly hard, in 1966, to pull him back into the group. He was flying off. But my attempts to bring Brian back into focus were a total failure.”

Mick, Keith and Charlie felt they had no choice but to fire him. A month later he was found dead on the bottom of his swimming pool at the age of 27. A sad story but the guys did the right thing for the band. They had to cut the anchor before it dragged them down.

As Principal of GlassRatner in our restructuring and bankruptcy practice, I have to cut a lot of anchors at companies we’ve worked with as clients. It’s necessary for a variety of reasons. Ineffective managers may have been promoted beyond their ability and incapable of performing their jobs. Employees have gotten lazy and are more concerned with getting a paycheck than doing much to earn it.  Or the company may just be bloated and need to be streamlined to crawl back to health.

I’ve had to fire employees at client companies for embezzlement or incompetence. And as I wrote in my book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOs’ Mistakes,” I once had to fire the CEO’s 83-year-old grandmother as her main contribution to the company was knitting him socks.

Sometimes I have to get rid of people because they have become troublemakers, hurting the morale of the other employees, spreading false rumors or stirring up drama in the workplace. As I heard a speaker say one time, “If you spend your whole day putting out fires, it’s time to fire the arsonist.”

It’s not a pleasant task. But efforts to save previously valuable and now-floundering employees rarely works. Like the efforts The Rolling Stones made with Brian Jones, they generally fail and are just a waste of time.

While I may not have Mick Jagger’s net worth, estimated at around $360 million, I do share some of his moves. Cutting anchors is one of them. It’s one of the keys to the success of any company and helped in the unparalleled career of The Rolling Stones. As pointed out in the article, “Why have the Stones lasted while all others faded? Whenever I asked an old-timer, I got the same answer. It’s Mick—his clearheadedness, his lack of sentimentality.”

Lessons from a Winning Masters Caddie

I think our couch is older than Jordan Spieth. But what a thrill to see this poised and talented 21-year-old win The Masters Sunday. Then I liked him even more when I read a Wall Street Journal article about his caddie, “Why Masters Champion Jordan Spieth Hired a Former Schoolteacher as His Caddie.”

Not long ago his caddy, Michael Greller, was teaching square roots to pre-teens as a 6th-grade math teacher. He had done a little caddying on the side and liked being able to use real-world examples of math for his students. He and Jordan met when Jordan needed a caddie for the 2011 U.S. Junior Amateur. Michael knew the course and was recommended to Jordan by a friend.

When Jordan turned pro in late 2012, there was no shortage of more experience caddies who wanted to work with him. But he wanted a caddie who could travel with him all year, no matter how well he was doing. So Michael left the classroom for good and became Jordan’s caddie. Just a little over two years later, Jordan put on the famous green jacket as the winner of the 2015 Masters.

What struck me about the article was this observation from the author, Brian Costa. “When Spieth double-bogeyed the 17th hole Saturday, Greller didn’t say much as they walked to the 18th tee box. He mostly just listened.”

As Michael said, “You don’t want to overanalyze or make it harder than it is. I just try to be a calming influence on him.”

I thought about that in the context of my work as the Turnaround Authority. I deal with a lot of people who are under a great deal of stress. When a financial institution or a company hires me, the situation is a dire one. People may be on the verge of losing large sums of money, defaulting on their loans or ever losing their entire business.

A lot of what I do in the beginning is listen. And listen some more. I need to gain a clear understanding of what is really happening in the company and how it got to where it is.

And I definitely don’t want to make it harder than it is, as Michael said. A large part of my job is to break down extremely complicated situations so they are manageable and can be dealt with in an efficient and productive way.

Michael understands that part of his function is to be a calming influence. That’s one of the things my clients have often said about me, and actually, I believe to be a crucial part of my job. I need to calm people down because nothing is going to be accomplished when people are in a highly emotional state.

With his quote, he cited two of the most critical skills involved in being a successful turnaround guy. To paraphrase the famous phrase with variations being found everywhere, “Keep Calm and Listen.”