Business turnaround: beat of a drum or rhythm of a song?

“We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.”
Charles R. Swindoll, American Writer

This quote and the story to follow, inspired me to share some thoughts on the meaning of business turnover.

In 1989, Ingar Skaug, then the very successful Chief Operating Officer of Scandinavian Air (SAS), took the challenge of his life: he stepped up as the CEO for Wilhelmsen- an international shipping company in Scandinavia- after all its management team was killed in a plane crash.

The organization was “paralyzed by grief” (Skaug’s words), the whole company was a mess.

He realized, that the only way to turn that situation around, was keeping his ears very open and his mouth shut: only after a whole year he started flipping the situation (after the one year ceremony for all the 50 killed former management staff).

He gradually started  leaning on his people and making them accountable for decisions and moving people around – promoting some, bringing some people from outside. Then they stablished “the culture”.

He took the necessary action and in 20 years he transitioned the shipping company to one of the largest maritime and integrated logistics operations company in the world.

That was a situation that seemed almost impossible to be fixed, a challenge that seemed larger than the man himself.  But patiently, a step at a time, Skaug made it a very successful story.

I really like this story because it portrays not only a business turn around, where offices and plants were disorganized and in operational chaos, where action plans had to be aggressive to achieve the necessary changes and results, but the story of someone who was happy and stable professionally and decided making the difference. Someone that was able to see the opportunity behind the “impossible situation”.

Once, reading an article in Forbes – “Five Steps to a Business Turnaround”, I took to heart one of the steps: “March to the beat of a different drummer”.

I questioned myself several times on the real meaning of that phrase and I can now understand some of its nuances. Here are some points that I took from it:

1- “Marching” always sounded like a stiff, structured but respectful way to walk the road. Maybe the change should start right there. And instead of “marching”, I decided using “dancing”, which to me sounded more flexible and pleasant, and personally made more sense.

2- “Beat” gave me that idea of something constant, regular, repetitive. I tried to place those words in my business plans and insights and it seemed not to fit. So I decided changing it to “rhythm”. That sounded more like something that flows naturally, finding some waterfalls at times, speedy and strong tides, and really calm waters at others. Just like businesses flow: full of surprises and unexpected events.

3- “Drummer”. For some reason I pictured someone hitting the same note, the same exact way, over and over again, finally wearing out the drum head. That image made me think of trying the same solutions repeatedly, and getting the same results; overwhelmingly hitting the same key and expect to have a better outcome. So, I decided changing it for a “song”- it sounded like bigger, richer, a huge variety of keys and sounds, several instruments that could work/play together or separately, always in search of harmony.

At the end, I was convinced that my “step”, or my motto should be: “ Dance to the rhythm of the band”.

So, I decided to always try to be thoughtful of using the right instruments, the right resources for the turnaround: when the situation requires that I dance a waltz, I slow down, take time to think and put all the “strings and piano” together and find a melodic solution, if it requires a strong arm, I make sure to then use my drums. And I try never to forget that although I lead a business, I need engaged players to build my team, my results, the company’s results. And if they are treated like people, they will be happy to be part of your song!

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One Response

  1. Thanks for the analogy! Interesting read!

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