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In my last column I wrote about Robert and a chance meeting he’d had with a guy who helped him turn his failing division into a runaway success. So how did he do that and what lessons can we learn from this story? Well, as we all know, you can’t help someone who resists change and is in denial. We get frustrated with others who refuse to acknowledge their problems and then dismiss the advice that would solve the issue. Often we only take action at the moment of crisis and frequently that’s too late, the point of no return having already arrived.

Robert realised his problems needed fixing and quickly. His division was losing money and his job was on the line. This would be his personal point of no return, he could see it coming and that made him very uncomfortable. However, his new friend he’d met at that recent lunch was on his way to help and he wondered how he’d go about fixing the problems. He soon found out. First, the guy insisted on meeting a number of people who worked above, below and alongside Robert. Robert was slightly uncomfortable about this, he wanted to be there and hear for himself. But his new friend explained this would hold people back and he really needed to get to the bottom of the issues that were causing the problems. He needed to hear many individual perspectives. Often it’s the most junior people that can see what’s wrong and how improvements can be made. He made Robert realise it was in the best interests of success that he should stay away. He needed to know what type of company and people he was dealing with, only then would he share his findings. His solutions to their problems had to be provided in context and the problems became very clear very quickly. Sales were well down, there was no dispute around this, but the reasons given varied from person to person. Of course, no one said it’s down to me, I should have tried harder. Some blamed the economy, others the competition.

Robert’s new friend soon saw through the excuses and felt he was ready to explain what was wrong and how it could be fixed. He sat Robert down and told him what he’d found and what he should do about it. The decline in the business originally came from a decision that produced unintended consequences. The most successful guy at generating new clients had been promoted and no longer brought in much new business. There had been no replacement. There were few answers to this simple question. “ What are we selling and why should anyone buy it?”. Although the division was awash with internal meetings none addressed how to gain more clients. And many of the senior people refused to take responsibility for bringing in new business. The HR and training departments just seemed to add another layer of administration and annual reviews and bonuses were a matter of management discretion. Underperformance was tolerated and anyway there were no consequences for doing a bad job. Of course many of these problems were deeply embedded and nothing an outsider said would make a difference. At least not in the short term and let’s face it time was running out for Robert.

It may not sound like it but this was in fact mostly good news. Why? Because there was so much wrong it was crystal clear why the business was failing. What was needed was a simple plan to mend the parts that could be fixed in the short term, particularly the things that Robert directly controlled. At this stage anything that required management consensus was definitely off limits. Robert began to feel better. He could see with the help of his new friend that turning things around was not impossible. That evening he told his wife that he felt his job could be saved. He slept well that night, something that hadn’t occurred too often lately. And when he woke up he looked forward to going to work, knowing that with the right help, he could turn things around. In my next column I’ll tell you specifically about the plan they put in place.

By David Mansfield, founder of The Drive Partnership and visiting professor at Cass Business School