Turnaround Rule #10.5 Know When to Go.


Know when to exit a turnaround situation

The dirty secret of completing a turnaround is knowing when to leave.

One of the dirty little secrets of being a change agent is that sometimes it’s time to go once your best work is done.  It’s good to go out on top.  The part no one talks about is that sometimes you have to create such a shakeup, there will be those with their knives out waiting for your first misstep the second your triumph becomes public.

Classic example.  I was a senior director at a large government services agency where the entire management team had been brought in to create an amazing turnaround. The executive director had taken on a complex, politically fraught (and, given the environment, often life-threatening) job, and executed an amazing turnaround. She was feted first in the industrial journals, then more publicly. The majority of the turnaround took three years culminating in national recognition. The agency, previously rated at a 33, was given a perfect 100 score by its regulator. There was talk of a Cabinet appointment. The director demurred, feeling there was more work to do.

A few more years went by. A different political party took office for the next 8 years. No more Cabinet appointment-speak…but still some acclaim. And slowly but surely, those whose apple cart she had upset were waiting with knives drawn.  Suddenly there were whispers about her salary, two of her contract arrangements, and talk of having her removed. By the time the next “friendly” national  administration was in place, the damage was done.

Was she perfect? No. As a matter of fact, I didn’t care for one of those contracts and felt a better deal could be negotiated locally.  But she took one of the single most daunting tasks of cleaning up a notoriously corrupt agency and turned it around.  In record time.  Which everyone conveniently forgot about 8 years later.  They forgot what it was like when the post office decided not to deliver to one of the facilities because the hail of bullets were so bad. That area that now hosts national golf tournaments, a model community and a fantastic magnet school.

Go out on top. Go out when the work is 99% done. There is nothing over 100%, no awards that equal A+++. If you’re good at this, you need to move on to the next challenge.  I am in no way advocating a “band aid” cure as a permanent fix but get out while the next opportunities are flying in the door. Otherwise you’ll forever be talking about your triumphs in past tense, because once you have everything thriving, the world collectively forgets what it took to get there all too quickly.

Have you ever overstayed after a project was done? Share in the comments box!

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  1. Oly parent says:

    What about leaving when you sense an effort is going off the rails? I currently have a leader who has apparently lost the stomach for real change and am contemplating the need to get out quickly. It’s a state government agency….

    • I think you have a few things to consider:
      1. When’s the next election year and is the leader likely to be swept out in the change or will he/she leave in advance of the change (very common for some to leave a year before elections)?
      2. On a personal note, have you gained any skills for your resume or CV during this operation that would put you in better shape than you were in last year or after your previous role. If the answer is no, then getting out is likely the best personal strategy, especially if the answer will still be no next year.
      3. Has the agency ever completed a significant change before? How long did it take (things tend to move VERY slowly in a government agency).
      4. Back to item 1. If an election IS coming up, is it possible your agency historically slows down their activities prior to an election to see “which way the wind is going to blow?”
      You also have to weigh in your own personal commitment to being a part of this particular change team. Pulling off an amazing change with measurable results is a fantastic thing, and can catapult your career and give you great opportunities. But stalling for three to four years with no measurable results just makes the next interview harder!

  2. shantanudutta says:

    I think that it may be better to leave when the job is more than half done, having developed a successor. You will be remembered for your contributions,rather than your failures…..

    • Yes, it depends on the project. If you’ve created something successful or on the way to success, it’s imperative you have someone who can take over and continue the growth. I think one challenge that many of us who work to create change have is that we are so passionate about building better systems, we aim for absolute perfection, rather than great… and its that search for the final perfection that derails us (as in the situation in the article). Thanks for great feedback Shantanudutta!

  3. Tina Crouse says:

    Over-stayed? Absolutely and you are correct, it’s a big mistake. More than a few projects got called or held up due to somebody else’s issues and somehow, it’s gets associated with you. As someone who focuses on completion, it’s hard to let go just before the end or when plans have been de-railed but professionally and personally, it’s the right thing to do.
    Interesting topic choice. Thanks!

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