Company restructure : a modern day Wild West

Restructuring. Downsizing. Disestablishing. And now Transforming. These descriptors tumble out of the thesaurus like marbles through a mincer, particularly in this age of disruption and reinvention, but the one commonality is that these fancy words and phrases spell doom and chaos for the rank and file; and just as interestingly tend to lead to an intense period of some of the worst executive behaviours that you will ever likely see.

I’ve been “privileged” enough to live through a dozen or so of these exercises through my career, falling foul of one, leading a couple, and probably most memorable managing to create my own exit from a couple. As anyone who has been through this knows – it is horrible. As leaders you spend much of your time attempting to create the “right” environment and culture for your business to survive and thrive, and then every couple of years or so you put a scythe through the heart of that culture whilst mumbling platitudes like “it’s for our long term sustainability”. Whilst that may hold some truth, it’s not often the real root cause of the problem. That is often more to do with elements of poor leadership have meant the business has become bloated in places and “action” is needed. And boy can the action be random.

The first major restructure I was involved in set an interesting precedent in my mind. Inevitably it was in February – gives the Execs something to do post Christmas – and the call went out. Major restructure. Hold on to your hats and here we go on the roller coaster ride. Except that after weeks and weeks of tortuous rumour and counter rumour, all that actually seemed to happen was that a loud mouthed clerk named Rachel quietly left the building. I was left with the overriding impression of “what the hell was that all about?”

Other restructures since have been far more extreme, although usually just as random. My most recent experience has probably been the worst. Chest out machoism at its worst, and boy do the alpha males come to the fore in this environment. The worst kind of “hard man” bravado, and of course it’s very brave when it’s playing with other people’s lives. Now I’m not saying that there should never be any changes. There should. No job is for life and the world is in hyperdrive to a very different future. Tough calls do need to be made. But as with everything in leadership, the “what” needs to play second fiddle to the “how”. And only when you tune the two to play well together will you achieve a successful outcome. When you have the leader of the organisation fixated on blunt percentage based targets that grow higher every time the subject is raised, and talking about sending a message to the organisation to “toughen up”, then you know you are in trouble. You are in even more trouble when he then walks away from this and allows all sorts of shenanigans to muddy the waters in all the functions that are actually bloated – which everyone on the inside knows – and he doesn’t have the wherewithal to call out the charade.

Those behaviours don’t take long to filter down. This latest venture has all the hallmarks of a western shootout. Last man standing wins. Some leaders thrive in this, but it’s my fervent belief that 9 times out of 10 it’s the wrong type of leaders that do so. And the hypersensitivity of an organisation is on overdrive during this phase. Everything bad is seen, digested and regurgitated. I often wonder if there is a better way, and inevitably what happens is that culture takes a splattering, productivity takes a big hit (who wants to work when you can gossip in corridors), wrong behaviours get rewarded and most tellingly good people leave. Perhaps we should be authentic and turn it into what it is – a lottery. All names in a hat (including leadership). First 10% (or whatever number gets decreed) out the hat don’t come back Monday. We could even stream it live.

My approach right now? Dodge and weave. Make changes where they need to be made, but in truth if you are a good leader, then you need to do this all the time not just every second February. This had looked like it had worked out well for me, but I’m not so sure now, and only time will tell.

Twice previously I have been far bolder. Both times about myself rather than my team – once where I managed to get myself into the frame to be “exited” from a role I was about to quit. And even more memorably, early on, I managed to gain a promotion as I “inadvertently” removed myself from the structure and budget when I was working for a numpty in a role I didn’t want to be in. High risk high reward.

The most telling personal experience though was the time I didn’t see it coming. Hard. Very hard. And it’s because of this that I am so vehemently opposed to how these debacles tend to play out 9 times out of 10. Top execs – especially the macho ones – need to take a long hard look in the mirror every other February. And hopefully with this future era of transparency rapidly landing upon us, there will be a few more real mirrors held up to them and smashed over their bloated heads, as the more telling demands of authenticity as well as consequence start to bite. And i still like the lottery idea….

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