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The Thin Line Between Insanity and Brilliance

November 13, 2013, 06:50 AM

I know a man who teaches school for a living. He’s a substitute teacher who never knows where his next assignment is coming from. Sometimes he teaches English; sometimes he teaches history. Occasionally, he’s asked to teach a gym class. The funny thing is, he works nearly every day and is in constant demand.

Why? It’s not because he’s an English expert or a history buff or a professional athlete; it’s because he knows how to teach.

After nearly three decades in the turnaround business, it’s frustrating to hear that a professional services firm—whether turnaround, financial, legal or other—wasn’t considered for an assignment because they didn’t have experience in a specific industry. It would make more sense to be knocked out of the running for being too big or too small or too good looking!

A turnaround consultant’s lack of industry-specific experience should rarely be a significant factor in the selection process. As a matter of fact, a fresh perspective can be an advantage. Many large companies hire executives from industries other than their own, citing a variety of reasons—including fresh ideas, new perspectives and creative problem solving. In the examples below, these companies found great success in hiring from outside their industries:

  • In 2006, Ford hired Alan Mulally as president and CEO—from Boeing.
  • In 1993, IBM hired Louis Gerstner as CEO—from Nabisco.
  • In 2003, Eastman Kodak hired Antonio Perez as chairman and CEO—from Hewlett-Packard.
  • In 1998, United Airlines hired John Creighton as a director, then as chairman and CEO—from Weyerhaeuser.
  • In 2010, General Motors hired Daniel Akerson as chairman and CEO from The Carlyle Group, an alternative asset-management firm.

Kudos to these corporate giants who recognized that the ability to succeed was not tied to the candidate’s ability to build a car or fly an airplane. Instead, they took a longer view and identified the candidates who had proven their ability to lead and manage.

In turnaround—as in other professional service industries—the same principles apply. Whether the leader of a distressed company or the lender who funds it, the question is not, “What do they know about my industry?” Instead ask, “What do they know about assessing a business, managing vendor and creditor relations, evaluating management structure, and analyzing the bottom line? What’s their success rate? What are former clients saying about them? What’s their reputation with lenders and workout attorneys and financial advisors?”

Bottom line: When a company’s financial success or survival is on the line, what matters is aligning with partners who possess the ability to lead and manage. Insanity is assuming that no one can understand your challenges unless they know your industry; brilliance is recognizing that a proven track record trumps industry experience every time.

Peter L. Tourtellot
Principal | Anderson Bauman Tourtellot Vos & Company
Peter Tourtellot is a founding principal of Anderson Bauman Tourtellot Vos & Company, a corporate revitalization company that works with companies in more than 40 industries throughout the United States. Founded in 1989, ABTV brings successful outcomes to companies in distress.

In his capacity as a turnaround professional, Tourtellot has served as interim CEO and president of companies in a wide variety of industry sectors, as well as a consultant to many others.

A leader in the development of the turnaround management profession, he is a past president and chairman of the Turnaround Management Association and a past president and chair of its Carolinas chapter. He has served as chairman of the association’s Certification Oversight Committee, a position that was created upon the merger of the Association of Certified Turnaround Professionals into the Turnaround Management Association in January 2008. He also serves as chair of the academic committee for the Carolinas Chapter of the TMA.

Tourtellot is a past president and chairman of the Association of Certified Turnaround Professionals and served as vice president of education and a member of their board of directors prior to the merger.

Tourtellot is a member of the advisory board for the Love School of Business at Elon University where he served as chairman from 2003 until 2010.
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