When taking over a business, begin with the basics

If you're running an organization, don't get lost in all the moving parts. Instead, start with the underlying simplicity

Dear Bob ...

I'm about to take the CEO spot in a new company. It isn't really a turnaround situation, but the company has underperformed for years. The board has made it clear that while it isn't expecting instant ignition, if I don't provide solid improvement by the end of my first year, I probably won't have the chance to show it in a second year.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Bob outlines some tried-and-true management techniques in "You can have an early, effective impact as a new manager" | Get sage IT career advice from Bob Lewis' Advice Line newsletter. ]

I don't want you to think I'm unqualified or nervous or in any respect concerned about my ability to do this job. That isn't why I'm writing.

Why I'm writing is that I've read you for years and have noticed that you often provide a different perspective than how I usually think about a subject.

Which brings me to my question: If you were in my situation, what would you concentrate on first?

- Turnarounder

Dear Turnarounder ...

In a different mood, I'd give you lots of answers, including this one, which isn't the answer I'm in the mood to give today: Spend your first month doing nothing but listening. Don't set any direction, don't make big decisions, and more than anything else, don't take sides. Understand the situation before you do anything else.

However, I'm not in the mood for it today. Instead, I offer this: Before any individual or organization can succeed at anything, he, she, or it has to be able to answer the question, in the legendary 25 words or less, "What's the point?"

It's the dreaded mission statement question, only without the statement and possibly without the word "mission." The question, stated more clearly, is "What are we trying to accomplish?" Stated even more clearly, it is, "What are we or will we be the best in the world at?"

At the risk of sounding warm and fuzzy or -- even worse -- liberal, the answer can't be about all the money you want to make. It has to be a matter of the value you will bring to your customers, society, or both.

It doesn't have to be fancy, either. If you build cars, "we build cars people want to buy" isn't a bad start. "We build the cars people would rather buy than any other cars, even if they can't afford them" is even better.

"We build great places for people to raise a family" would work well for a residential construction firm, and "we help people achieve their dreams" wouldn't be a bad shot for a venture capitalist.

Know the answer to that question, then know the answer to one more, which is, "How will we know we're succeeding or at least making progress?" Keep money out of this answer too: "People are buying what we sell" is good information, but rarely tells the whole story. In particular, it doesn't tell you how customers like what you sold them or what they wish you'd done differently with your product.

If you build great places for people to raise a family, it's worth asking yourself how you'll know if you've actually accomplished that goal.

If you know the answer to these two questions, what you're trying to accomplish and how you'll tell if you're succeeding, you'll be able to explain it to your employees.

By the way, when you do, add the word "profitably" to your explanation, just in case.

Assuming you do a good job of choosing the answers and explaining them, and of making sure your executive team is completely on board instead of just pretending until you give up and go away, you should have an excellent chance of achieving what you're trying to accomplish -- and of knowing that you've done so.

- Bob

This story, "When taking over a business, begin with the basics," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com.

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