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On the Brink of Failure
Author: Paul Falcone (Reprinted in part with permission from Society for Human Resource Management.)
Posted: July 8, 2008
Words of Wisdom
“Leadership is ‘show business’, it is symbolic and often dramatic. The new leader is no longer a cop, referee, sole decision-maker or dispassionate analyst. The new leader is more of a cheerleader, coach, nurturer of heroes, builder, facilitator and historian.”

A Passion for Excellence, by Tom Peters and Nancy Austin

As a supervisor or department head faced with a department that’s about to implode, take a candid look at either reinventing the structure of the group or replacing certain key individuals within it. You’ll want to conduct departmental structural and workflow analysis with your direct reports to determine areas of overlap as well as areas where resources might be needed. That’s often the best time to launch training workshops on leadership and communication in conjunction with formal weekly meetings to ensure that all voices are heard in the effort to make “fixing the crisis” a shared goal.

In a fairly short amount of time, and with the right help and guidance, you can determine if you have the right players in place to move your department forward and meet the immediate challenges ahead.

Phase 1: Structural Audit

A simple organizational analysis is typically the best place to start…keep it simple: Map out your entire workflow, from inception through end result. Map all contiguous areas where your employees touch the process and add value. Your rudimentary organizational analysis should quickly indicate where people and processes overlap or conflict.

Next, weave in the roles of ancillary support by collaborating with senior members in other departments as well as with external vendors, customers and key stakeholders. Finally, overlay areas where conflict and staff complaints seem to converge so you can physically see areas of tension.

The next day, roll out your workflow draft to the rest of your staff and ask them to comment on your senior team’s initial insights. Drill deeper until the majority of your staff members agree on the pressure points that squeeze productivity, and ask for suggestions on how to reinvent the workflow to ensure smoother operational processing.

Finally, ask for internal leaders to volunteer to assume responsibility for fixing the smallest and most manageable parts of the dysfunction. Such “stretch assignments” should be accomplished within a week and will result in concrete, positive outcomes that all can see.

Phase 2: Training

Propose three or four 90-minute meetings to discuss leadership and communication. Your organization may have “canned” training on hand or you may invite an external training organization to establish your new expectations in terms of leadership and communication. Leave plenty of time to discuss the topics raised, relate the rules and lessons to your group, and tailor the materials to your needs. This becomes your platform for group interaction and peer reinforcement. Two meetings per week during a two-week period will get your team off to a solid start in terms of outlining expectations and providing group leaders with the basic tools necessary to excel in their roles.

Once you see that regular and open communication occurs on an ongoing basis, you may choose to “kick off the training wheels” of weekly meetings and allow employees to revert to a less formal communication and leadership structure and direction.

Phase 3: ‘Fit Factor’

Watching employees behave in their new environment with heightened expectations may go a long way in helping you determine who “fits” and who may be out of place. Some people naturally resist change and self-select out of the change process. Others “get it” and rise to the occasion, demonstrating discretionary energy and effort to accomplish the predetermined goals.

First, working with your HR team, consider exploring opportunities to assist individuals who may be gossiping, driving a wedge between the other staff members, and/or significantly eroding departmental progress.

Then focus your attention on the employee group who perform adequately but who may “struggle to the minimums.”

You have the opportunity to grow and build on your team, and then recruit new players who demonstrate increased engagement and overall job satisfaction. The business cycle gets reviewed anew. Rising to the occasion may be the greatest way to move from the brink of failure to the edge of ultimate success.


Paul Falcone is a human resource executive and a best-selling author of five AMACOM books, including 2,600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews.