President Barack Obama has been given the task of turning around the mother of all startups, the American economy. You could make a case that the president is responsible for turning around planet Earth, whose economic sun is the U.S. You couldn't inherit a situation that is much worse than our current economy.
The president is an experienced, successful startup guy, as evidenced by his community-organizing work and political campaigns. Lucky for the country and the world, Obama appears to possess traits and skills that will undoubtedly allow him to succeed. I have run four turnarounds, wrote a book on the subject, "Small Business Turnaround," and have worked and talked with many turnaround experts. The following are the 15 skills and traits you need to rebuild a company.
Entrepreneurs and good turnaround professionals share the optimism gene. You have to be a "true believer" in what you're doing or the troops won't follow you. Worse, your clients, prospects and the suppliers that keep you alive won't believe you, and the game will be over very fast.
When all around you is falling apart and gale force winds are ripping off the siding of your once-indestructible building, you have to come across as unflappable and in control. Obama is a prime example. We watched other candidates crumble, but he looked composed. He reassured his troops that the storms would pass. He reminded them to stay focused and on plan.
3. Good listener:
Everyone involved in a turnaround, from employees to customers to suppliers, is a stakeholder in the success of the business. Ignoring or dismissing people's suggestions is a quick way to destroy support and morale. You don't have to accept and implement everyone's ideas, but you do need to give them a fair audience. Obama has been smart in reaching across the aisle and listening to Republicans. He might not like or agree with their ideas, but he is engendering a good working relationship.
People don't like to be lied to or have the truth sugar-coated. The president has been upfront about the problems the country is facing.
5. Set realistic expectations:
Employees, customers and your bank want to know when the ship will turn around. But it's impossible to give a date and time. Many CEOs, especially at public companies, make this mistake as a way to restore confidence. When the magical date arrives and the company hasn't improved, all credibility is out the window. Obama said it will take a year or more to get the country going in the right direction.
Because there are so many moving parts and people involved, you have to be willing to compromise. That doesn't mean you compromise your integrity or settle for less, but you have to find the middle ground to keep up momentum. The supplier wants all of its money right away; you want to pay 10% of the bill so you don't spend all your precious cash. Share your financial situation and come to an agreement both sides can live with because, the truth is, no one else will touch you.
7. Don't blame the last guy:
Here, Obama fell short, and I hope someone told him. The worst thing you can do is blame the last guy for the current predicament because no one wants to hear it wasn't your fault. They just want to know what you're going to do to fix it.
8. Cash is king:
My business partner, Walker Tompkins, former CEO of American Express Credit Corp., always says: "Cash is more important than your mother." My mother is Jewish, so I'm not telling her that, but cash is the lifeblood of the business so you have to be careful how you spend it. Cut whatever you don't need, such as golf-club memberships, unless you're getting business from club members. Make a list of all your expenses and see what you can reduce. You can often lower bills for copier paper, telephone, Internet and other commodities. Don't scrimp on health insurance or get rid of the building's fire policy.
9. Take a pay cut:
The car czars made a huge mistake when they told Congress they weren't planning to take pay cuts but were begging for money. It's not enough to freeze pay raises; you have to show you have skin in the game. My advice to Obama, who made a fortune on books and will make astronomical amounts of money when he leaves office, is to insist on a significant pay cut for himself. I immediately cut my salary at two startups and accrued pay in another.
10. Pick smarter people than you:
If you're the smartest person in the room, you're starting at a disadvantage. Even Obama has intellectual peers and, in some cases, people smarter in different disciplines.
Everyone on the team has to be a self-starter. I give Obama credit for surrounding himself with smart self-starters, even if they don't agree with him. Selecting Hillary Clinton was a great idea because she just as easily could have been president, and she won't need much coaching or encouragement to move forward.
12. Team players:
Everyone has to row together. You can have spirited dialogue, but you can't have quarreling. Anyone who puts themselves first gets shot and pushed overboard. If you don't, there will either be a mutiny or the survivors will kill one another.
13. New ideas:
Start looking for and soliciting new ideas that will breathe life into the business. Pick a couple you can afford and implement them. It will show everyone you're alive and focused on the future.
14. Customer service:
No time to skimp on customer service. The
is in turnaround mode, but it elected to make its receptionist job part-time, so when you call, you have to fight your way to find someone. That's not reassuring.
15. Take responsibility:
If things don't work, admit your mistake and move on. Don't linger and beat yourself up. Obama has had a couple of hiccups -- nominees dropped out. He said he should have dug deeper into their backgrounds, told us how he planned to fix the problem and went about his business.
Lastly, doing all of the above will motivate everyone connected. Americans love helping the underdog, so if people see you are working hard, they will lend a helping hand.
Marc Kramer, a serial entrepreneur, is the author of five books and is an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton's Global Consulting Practicum, where he serves as Country Manager for Chile.