“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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”