Kaiser: Focus on Today and Tomorrow, Not Yesterday

This week’s message concerns Rule #4 taken from Michael Kaiser’s 2008 book, The Art of the Turnaround. So far we have learned that in the type of white-knuckle situation of saving an established organization from financial purgatory there must be 1) one leader, who 2) has a plan for turning around the organization’s fortunes, which 3) does not rely solely or even primarily on cutting costs. And now we see with Rule #4, which is today’s title, that a viable leader knows to focus on today and tomorrow, not yesterday.

This is a real challenge for any new manager arriving on the scene of a struggling organization, for no matter how well prepared you are with plans for going forward, the demands to rectify past wrongs can prove to be overwhelming. It seems to be human nature to obsess over the injustices of the past. And if you are not prepared to bring restitution to the supposedly injured parties, then you are inviting an innate opposition to your own strategy, no matter how well conceived it might be.

My management mantra for this phenomenon is that “Every problem has a name.” Of course, you might say that it is cash flow, poor programming, worse marketing, etc., etc.  But my point is that every problem is often identified by the name of the person who is the apparent cause of the problem. Jack did. John did. Jeff did, etc., etc., etc., from which the finger pointing becomes one of the most prolific achievements of the organization. And part of your challenge is dealing with the expectation that to solve the problem you must get rid of the person as well. This is part of the human drama we politely call the “politics” of the organization. And the pols can definitely kill any initiative you bring as part of your stellar resume.

Kaiser’s friendlier take on his rule is that the demand to address current cash flow needs can redirect your efforts away from addressing longer-term solutions. This has been labeled by others as the tyranny of the urgent and it presents a dilemma of which every manager needs to be aware. But my own counsel is that you will find a greater difficulty in dealing with the short-term, often vengeful thinking of the people who occupy key positions in the organization than you will with the red ink of your bank balance.

One well-intended explanation I received from a board member about the intransigence of his fellow directors came when I was managing a historic preservation organization. His point of view was that the leadership of this type of group dwells on the past by default, meaning solutions can only be implemented as they were once done in the deep, dark past represented by the organization’s mission statement. My revisionist attitude was that this obsession was not as chronologically extensive as his estimate, although pathologically it was just the same. Instead my opinion was that people wanted the organization to remain as it was in recent memory, as it was when they joined or first became involved since, to their way of thinking, the operations were so much better then. This type of management by nostalgia puts any new leader on the spot to maintain things “the way they were” under the misguided delusion that the people who ran the show then (although now deceased or too decrepit to be of any use) were so much better than the people one must tolerate now. But worshipping at the altar of the dearly departed can be detrimental to the chronic need for innovation in order to grow.

A corollary to this type of thinking is the “We tried that and it doesn’t work” syndrome. The strategy you wish to employ may be perfectly sound but the one’s in opposition to it can remember their own attempt to implement something similar but found they were incapable of making it happen due to the lack of knowledge, training, mentoring or a sheer overabundance of stupidity. In my careless and more badass moments I have simply restated the complaint by saying “You mean you tried it and you failed”, with the emphasis strategically placed on the word you all three times in that brief sentence. I found it extremely frustrating when forced to deal with these people, who preferred to waste their time arguing over the true color of the yellow brick road rather than taking the first step towards seeing the wonderful wizard at the road’s end.

Despite this personal re-direct of Kaiser’s Rule #4, I do agree with his assessment that “… the true turnaround artist possesses the discipline to carve out time each week to focus on artistic programming, board development, donor and press cultivation, and other activities that will make future years easier.” He could add that a one-year pocket calendar doesn’t make it when trying to forge a long-term strategy for these administrative activities. And that is where we will pick up next week when we consider our mentor’s Rule #5 concerning a manger’s perception about time.

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