Leadership Growing Pains


Making Hard Decisions

It’s fairly obvious in this difficult economy that companies have no choice but to change in order to survive, let alone thrive. The world is moving and shifting so fast that companies who fail to adapt their thinking, processes, and systems are being left behind and closing their doors.  Alpha could have been one of those sad stories. Fortunately, the story hasn’t ended and we’re happy to say that we’ve turned a corner.

I faced many new challenges when I started at Alpha in 2010, the main one being that I said I would never work in my father’s anodizing business. God must have a great sense of humor when we use the word “never.” We were in a downward spiral and the morale of the staff was at an all-time low. We needed more than just a new strategy in sales and quality, but a serious overhaul in the attitude and focus of the leadership. As I read “How the Mighty Fall” by Jim Collins I couldn’t help but think that we were experiencing the "silent creep of doom." Call me a bit naïve since I was new to the anodizing industry, but I came in with a sense of urgency and started with what I knew we needed to do before we could have any discussions: grow sales. I’m sure the management team must have thought I was crazy. We hired in a great sales person to assist me in mining the opportunities for business development that lay dormant, many that were just plain missed.

Ben Franklin once said “Drive thy business or it will drive thee.” For me, that means you can’t just sit there and expect business to come to you through your normal supply chains, especially if the economy is hurting. You have to go get the business, proactively! As it was, my salesperson and I put together a great strategy for marketing and sales. What we didn’t anticipate is that we would meet resistance at every step of the journey from the management team. They nodded their heads at our ideas and tried to smile, but it was obvious that they thought “He just doesn’t get it.” For us, the change meant excitement!

"Change has a considerable psychological impact on the human mind. To the fearful it is threatening because it means that things may get worse. To the hopeful it is encouraging because things may get better. To the confident it is inspiring because the challenge exists to make things better."  --King Whitney Jr. 

I must confess, I really thought that they would eventually catch the vision and excitement for what I saw as great potential for Alpha. Unfortunately, they had no desire to take things any farther. All change is painful and can produce aleadership 1 certain amount of fear, even complacency. But, the cost and consequences of not making changes and adapting to new circumstances can be even worse. As the sales started to grow within a few months I detected a slight spark of enthusiasm, but when the growing pains came with it I knew the managers were not along for the ride. It was time to make the hard decisions from the top down: the managers needed to go. For sure, there was much agonizing over this decision. If Alpha was ever going to get back off the ground we needed a transformation in the leadership and culture. At a previous company I worked for I experienced firsthand the devastating effects of having the wrong leaders at the top. It damaged momentum, morale, and caused sales and service delivery to decline. We couldn’t allow this to happen at Alpha.

Winston Churchill followed three basic principles in selecting his personnel: 1. Pick the best person suited for the job and ignore seniority. 2. Have your plans in mind as you select your executives so that they serve your design and not their own. 3. Start at the top, not the bottom, in building your team. That is essentially the strategy that we followed as we replaced three good managers. I had taken quite a bit of time to identify leaders within the current staff at Alpha so that when the time came to lay off two of our managers we had a transition plan in place. One manager seemed to be on board with us and showed a willingness to hang in there. Ultimately, the change was just too stressful for him so he opted to resign.

I wish I could say that this transition was smooth. It was not! No leadership change is ever perfectly smooth and certainly we experienced a great loss in our knowledge base as well as the investment in their training. Not to mention, there were major hiccups in quality and production for about three months as the new leadership team learned their new roles. Were there some mistakes made in how we handled the leadership transition? Definitely. It was difficult to think through how all of the changes would impact us and the rest of the staff. We did not have the luxury of a change management team. But we kept moving forward with the principles from Jim Collins' Good to Great: “Those who build great organizations make sure they have the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus.”

Some of you may be asking “Was there a payoff?” Most assuredly. In the past two years we have experienced solid growth in sales (nearly 20%) as well as a huge change in the morale and productivity of the staff. Not to mention we have received many compliments from our long time customers. We haven’t hit all of our goals and objectives but as the new leadership team has begun to gel and find their groove in how they work together it is clear that we made the right decision. Was the transition easy? No. Was it painful? Yes. But I’d rather have growing pains any day. Surviving these hard economic times is good but we make it our aim to thrive, not just survive. This means making hard decisions and takes unwavering faith in what you’re doing and why.