At some point in your career, you will come across an organization that fails to perform at an acceptable level.  Maybe more than once in your career.  If you are lucky, you will be the one tasked with fixing the problem, and here’s how to do it.  What an opportunity!  Seriously, just think about it.  While it may sound like a risk to your own career, it really isn’t.  Here is the secret…you should not look to just correct the problems, but transform the organization all together.  Don’t just take it from failing to passing…take it to best organization status.

Here is what you need:

  • Willingness to seek the truth
  • Common sense
  • People and team-building skills
  • Marketing/advertising skills (but not much)

Seems simple, right?  It is.  Here is how to do it.

Determine the Truth

Before you start the fixing, you need to understand the problems.  Learn what the organizations is supposed to be doing, what they are not doing, and the internal processes.  Talk to the team(s) in the organization and the users to get both internal and external perspectives.  Management may have told you what the problems are and to, “go and fix them.”  It does not matter – at this point you are just discovering the truth.  This truth may conflict with what you have been told or your own assumptions, but it is necessary and the foundation of everything you are going to do to transform the organization.

Listen to the staff and talk to everyone.  I’d start out with a team meeting to give everyone a heads up, tell them that your goal is to transform the organization and that you will have one-on-ones with everyone to get their perspectives.  Keep the meeting short and don’t let it become a finger-pointing free for all.  Consider implementing 360-degree reviews for a regular or impromptu review cycle.  This is where everyone rates their peers, subordinates and bosses.  These are to be kept confidential.  They will bring to the surface any underlying causes of poor performance.  While they are a lot of extra work, they are extremely useful in determining poor performance.

If you need a process to help determine where the problems are, use Root Cause Analysis.  Introduce the team to the process and get them to join in.  Make sure that the focus is not on the blame, but on correcting processes so that the problems do not occur again.

Simple Fixes

During the discovery phase, you will likely find multiple areas that need to be addressed.  Personnel issues, performance, moral, unrealistic expectations, missing or incorrect procedures, and perceptions.  Deal with the personnel issues as you would at any other time.  Set performance expectations and see that they are met.  Change the perceptions of the folks in the organization so that they understand that you are not there to lay the smack down, but to build them up into the top performers that you know they can be.  Review current expectations against the organization’s mission and get them to match by addressing unrealistic expectations and creating the procedures and processes needed to take on the work that you can do.  Be the voice and the advocate for the organization.  Stand up for the people and teams and don’t let others walk on them.  If there is a problem during this transition period, you take the blame and then address it with the team so that it does not happen again.  Have the team assist in the creation or changes to procedures.  This helps to create buy-in and a sense of shared ownership.  Take each of these things one at a time and deal with them.  Understand that perceptions are reality.  True or not, if enough believe something, then to them it is the truth.  I once had an organization of Computer Operators in the Central Computer Complex (CCC) where the perception was that staff were always off screwing around and never at the CCC where they were supposed to be.  Even senior site managers believed this to be true.  My simple fix was to have the Drafting Department print out a multi-sheet, 15 foot by 3 foot map of the entire complex.  I hung this map on the back wall of the CCC where everyone could see it.  The CCC was centrally located and I put a red, You Are Here star on the map at the CCC.  I then drew a red line on the map to the 15-20 different places on site where the Computer Operators were required to go to do their jobs.  It was simple, but it addressed the perception problem.

Team Building

You will need to create a sense of team if one is lacking.  One team, one mission.  The team is in it for the team, everyone understands the mission, the procedures, and the team works together to help one another and achieve mission success.  It is not about the individual.  It is about the mission, the assigned tasking, and it takes a team working together to achieve assigned goals with consistency.  A big part of this will be standing up and defending your team, taking hits for them, and letting them see that you are committed to them.  Be vocal.  Explain what you are doing and how it will help the team.  Implement the simple, common sense fixes that are needed.  Hold everyone accountable.

Build morale.  Chances are, if you took over a poor performing organization, it will come with a staff that has low morale.  Determine the cause(s) and fix it if you can.  If you can’t fix it, acknowledge the past, but get everyone focused on the future.  This is important…if you want your staff to be professional, treat them like the professionals that you expect them to be.  Use your people-skills and be sincere, open and honest.  Build the trust in your leadership and don’t let the team down.  This does not mean that you will not lose any battles.  It just means that win or lose, you team will know that they can rely on you to fight for them.  Listen to your team’s ideas and implement them where you can.

Market Your Organization

Make sure that there are no misunderstanding about what your organization is there to do.  Consider publishing a list of services that your organization provides.  Make sure that your organization is not an easy target.  Stand up for and defend them.  Do not let perceptions exist.  Either your team is doing a good job, or you get the details and fix it.  When your folks do well, crow about it.  Generate a positive buzz where before there was negativity.  Be the voice and the advocate, and advertise your team’s success.

While it does take work and determination, it is possible to completely change perceptions of an organization in 6-12 months, taking it from bottom-level performance to one of the best performing.  As a manager, transforming a poorly performing organization is one of the most rewarding accomplishments you can have in your career.  It is creating a vision of excellence and seeing it through to completion while bringing an entire team with you.  Problems are opportunities.  In this case, it is the chance to build a top-performing organization.

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Todd Keys is a Program Manager at Cantada, Inc. He has been in the intelligence Community for 30 years, as a member of the military (USAF), and as a contractor for top 100, top 10, and small business federal defense contractors. He has held multiple roles, CONUS and OCONUS, ranging from technician to executive, providing site O&M, system administration, engineering, supervision, contract management, and Capture/BD for the DoD and multiple intelligence agencies.