The Skills of a Turnaround Artist, Part 2

Written by Dr Steven Goodwin. Posted in Uncategorized

Cultural Anthropologist

The leader who desires to turn around a dysfunctional organization has no easy task. Nicolo Machiavelli was likely not the first observer to note this, but he forever captured the heart of the difficulty when he wrote:

“And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the reformer has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.”

In spite of the inherent hazards of leading an effective reform, it is still a worthy endeavor in many cases. Sure, a goodly number of dysfunctional organizations should be left to die in their own time. Others however, are worth saving. This will require a quite unique skill set on the part of the leader. In an earlier post I argued that reformers need to be ‘Strategists’. In other words, like a Chess Master, they need an effective opening gambit, a dynamic middle game, and a powerful endgame all strategically laid out move by move as the opponent responds and rallies. After this first skill in the reformer’s toolkit, the second is that of a ‘Cultural Anthropologist.’

Think of anthropology and you are predictably likely to conjure up images of a primitive tribal group in some far off land like Papua New Guinea. Since anthropology is the study of humanity in social groups you would be partially right, albeit limited in your scope. Observe any grouping of people and study the culture they create and you doing anthropology.

Reformers must acquire the skills of a cultural anthropologist because the most pernicious obstacles to organizational reform lie deeply in the realm of the group’s cultural encoding. Why is demeaning behavior on the part of boss tolerated? Why do some individuals escape punishment? Why is conflict avoided? Why are people afraid to speak the truth in meetings? The root causes to such organizational symptoms often lie within the culture of the organization. Frequently the origins of such behaviors can be traced back to the founder(s).

Leaders are charged with shaping culture and reformers must have in their tool belts the anthropological skills to diagnose and surgically excise dysfunctional culture. This will require thoughtful examination over time to ferret out such issues as: 1) what is the payoff for the organization in exchange for tolerating the dysfunction; 2) how healthy are the individuals who lead the group; 3) why does the organization shrink back from changing the dysfunction and moving towards a healthier system.

Archimedes famously said: “Give me a lever long enough and I can move the world.” Reformers simply must have the long lever of anthropological tools to move dysfunctional organizational cultures towards health and productivity.

The Skills of A Turnaround Artist

Written by Dr Steven Goodwin. Posted in Uncategorized


For as long as I can remember I have been frustrated by ineffective organizations. My first such memory was around age ten when my family moved and we tried a new church down the street. I didn’t like it. Something about that congregation felt wrong to me. I begged my parents to return to our former church, which we did.

Since that day, it has been my pursuit to try to figure out just what is wrong with organizations that have lost their effectiveness. Eventually, this became my research focus of my doctoral work as I investigated the dual questions of what goes wrong in dysfunctional organizations and what skills are needed to fix it. In studying countless successful and unsuccessful turnaround organizations, I determined that leaders need a unique skill set. In the next set of posts to this blog, I will explore these skills one by one. I invite you, dear reader, to join in the conversation and expand our collective insights into this important topic.

The first essential skill of a turnaround artist is that of a “Strategist.” Much like a chess master who constructs a mental plan of attack, so too is the strategic turnaround leader. Chess masters build complex mental models with an opening, a middle game, and an end-game plan. They are continually thinking in advance what will be their next move as well as contemplating the possible moves of their opponent. Then, when the opponent chooses a move, the strategic chess player reacts proactively and dynamically.

The fluid, strategic turnaround leader does not sit back and wait for things to happen. Turnaround leaders move and adjust continually until their ends are achieved. One of my personal leadership axioms captures this skill by saying: “Leaders are always one-half step ahead of the people they lead.” Too far ahead and people do not see you leading. Too reactive and your team won’t see you as a leader. One-half step ahead is just about right to maintain a dynamic pace of leading change and transforming culture.


Written by Dr Steven Goodwin. Posted in Uncategorized


Last week I wrote about the habits of successful leaders and I suggested leaders spend time thinking. Strategy, assessment, reflecting on the organization’s culture, problem-solving, mentoring, learning new skills, are all invariably worthy of time spent in deep thought. I would like to add a less obvious subject to this unassailable list: surprises.

Leaders who wish to succeed at the highest levels are well served by continually cataloging and analyzing the surprises they encounter. Noting, for example, the reaction of an employee to a new process implementation, or observing a team’s inability to solve a problem you thought was easily within their reach, or heeding your shock over a new hire who fails to integrate into the company. These unexpected events are often harbingers of significant cultural assumptions that are operating inconspicuously beneath the surface.

I have noted before in this blog that the task of leadership is primarily about shaping the culture of the organization or group. Surprises are the canary in the cultural mine that serve as early warnings of problems. An employee who has difficulty managing the change to a new process or procedure may be an indicator that there are important values that are competing against one another. Solve this underlying values issue and you have solved not just the symptom but a host of problems that would have occurred down the line. A team that struggles over something that you felt was a “gimme” may be a herald to significant interpersonal or cultural communication difficulties that beg to be confronted. The new hire who was judged to be supremely gifted over all the other candidates and yet fails to integrate may be the first sign that there is a cultural misalignment that is silently robbing your productivity.

Surprises are invaluable learning opportunities for great leaders. Plan to take a few moments this week to take stock of your latest surprises. Chasing down their root causes will yield a rich harvest in terms of productivity and return on investment as you lead your world class organizational culture.

Do You Have “Mountains” to Move?

Written by Dr Steven Goodwin. Posted in Uncategorized


I am working with an organization that desperately needs to make some changes to survive. They all know it and have openly admitted they are afraid to move forward. What do they do?

After learning some new ways of thinking, creating a shared vision, and sharing their fears, they are starting with some baby steps, making some small changes where the risk is low and the likelihood of success high. We are building institutional confidence. Like the “Little Engine That Could” we want the organization to start to think and feel, “I think I can, I think I can!”

Can the answer be so simple? Well, yes and no. Small changes can yield big results, but finding the areas of highest leverage can be challenging as they are often least obvious-especially to those in the system. Just as a ship at sea is affected greatly by a small rudder that remains fairly unobvious, so can an organization be steered by underlying structures that are not so obvious.

What are you not seeing? Do you need someone to help you consider some new ways of thinking? Are you ready to move some mountains?

The Habits of Leaders

Written by Dr Steven Goodwin. Posted in Uncategorized


In the nearly 25 years since Stephen Covey first published his landmark book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Leaders, more than 10 million people have sought after the habits of successful leaders. All these years later, Covey’s book still raises a fascinating question: What habits do great leaders have in common? Covey, of course, proposes seven key habits and, while they are indeed exceptional, they are only the start of a list of leadership habits.

What would you add to a list of essential habits of enduring leaders?

The first habit to come to my mind is the habit of thinking. Before you dismiss this as a bit naive, allow me to explain. I argue that first and foremost leaders are charged with being strategic thinkers. As a leader you are paid not only to perform essential duties, but even more you are paid to think deeply about critical matters such as strategy, shaping the culture, building teams, political diplomacy, conflict utilization, and a host of other cerebral challenges. No one should ever joke that you are unproductive when they walk into your office and find you “just thinking.” If they do, tell them firmly, “I am paid to think, not just do.”

Thinking must become a regularly practiced habit for leaders because the demand to produce, to get the pile of work off your desk, is so persistent and so overwhelming that thinking will always get short shrift. Enforcing the habit of productively thinking, even amidst the incessant demands of your leadership role, is critical to success.

I am interested in learning your suggestions for other mission critical leadership habits. Perhaps as you exercise your thinking habit a few will come to your mind. Hit ‘Comment’ below and let’s have a conversation of thinkers about your ideas.

“Superteams” Are More Than Super!

Written by Dr Steven Goodwin. Posted in Uncategorized


What is it like to be part of a great team? It’s happened to me a 4-5 times throughout my career and I hope it has happened to you! As you may know, it’s a euphoric experience—there is this sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves, deep community—true connectedness, and a willingness to do “whatever it takes” to accomplish the mission. When I have been part of these “great teams,” I have felt like I was living life to the fullest.

At the start, great teams are about getting the “right people on the bus” and “in the right seats.” I am in the process of building a “superteam”—I am looking for champion–the right people for the right seats on my bus. Many organizations throw teams together in haste or with little consideration. But I want a team that is built and not born—so, I will consider: necessary skill sets, emotional intelligence, knowledge, values, and chemistry needed for the task ahead. I don’t’ want just another team to work with to get a job done, I want to be part of another “superteam” where I can feel the passion and connectedness that impacts our company and our world.

Are you building a “super team”? Who are you inviting on your team? Are they on the “right seat” in your bus?

The Power of a Group of Peers

Written by Dr Steven Goodwin. Posted in Uncategorized


So, be honest, how are you doing on your New Year’s Resolutions? That bad, eh?

Me? I am doing great thanks to the most helpful book I’ve read in years. The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, has been nothing less than a revelation. After trying to years to change my most plaguing bad habit and repeatedly attempting start a new habit I earnestly desire, I am finally succeeding. My success is due to the insights I got from this remarkable work.

One of the book’s key insights is that in order to change our habits, we have to truly believe that we can succeed. But belief is a fleeting state, which explains why by the middle of February most leaders have given up on their resolutions to change. Duhigg points us to research demonstrating that “for habits to permanently change, people must believe that change is feasible.” This revelation is followed with the bombshell: “Belief is easier when it occurs within a community.”

So, maybe what you should have resolved for the New Year was to join a peer-coaching group and in the context of a community of your peers, worked to establish new leadership habits. Even just one other person, like engaging a leadership coach, can make all the difference in breaking bad habits and starting new ones.

On this 9th day of February, I am feeling wonderful about my success with breaking my bad spending habits and starting a new habit of writing daily. I believe I can do it because my peer group believes I can.

Advantages of Peer Coaching

Written by Dr Steven Goodwin. Posted in Uncategorized


One of my favorites folk adages is Vernon Sanders Law’s dictum: “Experience is a poor teacher because it gives the test before the lesson.” The truth underlying this humorous proverb is that leaders need to learn the lessons of leadership before they make mistakes that have consequences. Herein lies one of the prime advantages of belonging to a peer coaching group.

A group of peer leaders who meet together with consistent frequency offer one another the opportunity to discuss the challenges of leadership. In a safe setting with other experienced leaders, each participant can rehearse significant leadership moves with their colleagues. It has been my experience that when I have availed myself of such invaluable opportunities, my peers have refined my thought process, helped me see obstacles I was blind to, and positively shaped my plans thus exponentially increasing my chances of success. Time after time, my peers have saved me from overreacting, under-planning, blindly advancing, failing to consider people’s feelings and so much more. When I think of the leadership faux pas I would have made without the wise counsel of my colleagues, I shudder.

Wise leaders choose instead to sit with a group of brilliant men and women and listen to their years of wisdom and experience than to brashly go it alone. The collective knowledge base of a peer coaching group makes for markedly better leaders.

So before your next leadership crisis, invest in a group of peers you trust and agree to gather regularly. The lessons you learn from one another are infinitely more valuable than the ones you will learn via your own mistakes.