In an earlier post I discussed the consistent process I take the first week of each interim CEO / COO assignment. As noted, though my process is consistent across companies, the resultant actions taken are often quite different from company to company. My strangest -– but in hindsight maybe my most effective –- first action was as interim COO at a $20+ million, unprofitable software company: The first thing I did was clean the company kitchen!
Little did I know that -– before the last clean mug was in the strainer -– word traveled to the company’s remote offices in London, Dubai, and Perth that there was a new kid on the block and he was taking no prisoners. Unknown to me at the time, the foundation for a rapid turnaround was in place.
Arriving 45 minutes early that first day -– it’s amazing what you find out about a company arriving 45 minutes early on the first day –- the only employees in the office were four individual contributors having coffee in the company kitchen; a ridiculously extravagant kitchen any TopChef chef would die for.
I was told that the only available coffee cups were in the pile that filled the sink -– a pile of dirty dishes, it was noted, that was indicative of two of the company’s problems. First, that management was unable to make tough decisions. And second that people who had once cared deeply for the company had grown discouraged and didn’t give a damn about even the smallest things any more.
When the board told management to cut the payroll, management decided to fire the lowest paid person in the company -– the cleaning lady -– rather than some high-priced-but-ineffective VP. And employees who once cared enough about the company to pitch in and help had long ago thrown in the towel and given up working very hard.
At that moment, something inside me said, “Take off of your jacket and tie, roll up your sleeves, and clean the kitchen.” Two of the four workers quickly exited –- I now realize to spread the word about the new, crazed COO -– while the other two pitched in and helped me clean up.
The time cleaning was well spent. These two were a wealth of information about what the company’s problems really were vs. the conflicting views I obtained from various board members. And I loved the look on the CEO’s face when he walked in just as we were nearly finished, shook his head, turned, and headed towards his office: He clearly understood that things were going to change at the company he had founded!
When nearly done with the dishes, I asked for a couple of favors: Could they ask HR to see if the cleaning lady was willing to come back to work starting today. And could they spread the word that the next person I caught leaving a mess for their fellow employees to clean up –- be it a dirty cup, some sloppy code, or an inaccurate sales forecast –- would be shown the door.
Turns out I never had to show anyone the door.
This ended up being one of the easiest turnarounds. The ‘hangers on’ who were just there to collect a paycheck -– including two of the VPs –- quickly realized that the best course of action was to find the exit door on their own. And those key individual contributors — the most important ingredient for a rapid turnaround — rose to the occasion, allowing us to reach sustainable profitability within the first quarter.
Oh, and yes; you could walk into the kitchen at any time and it was clean; just like the code in the next release of software and just like the sale forecasts for the next quarter!
And to think it all started with a pile of dirty dishes!