Looking at Trump as a Turnaround Executive

The 2016 election outcome was an unexpectedly loud declaration by the American people about their dissatisfaction with the direction of the country.

Further, the magnitude of the post-election polarization has ensured the historical habit of “happy talk” promoting the need for bipartisan initiatives that bring us together is absent and not going to happen.

We are in a cultural crisis due to two fundamental and, as yet, largely unaddressed areas of disagreement, disagreements which are so basic that there are no differences to split so we can meet in the middle.

Those two areas of conflict are cultural Marxism and the administrative state. Both have spread like invasive kudzu through our cultural and governmental institutions. And each are mortal threats to liberty in America.

Such a crisis creates a clarion call for a turnaround. But turnarounds do not happen without leaders willing to do unpopular things, clarity about the real issues, the building of a large enough coalition, and the ongoing delivery of short-term wins.

Does America have the will to address its deep challenges? How does Donald Trump fit into this picture?

Conventional Wisdom Still Does Not Explain Trump

Many people continue not to understand Donald Trump because they continue to measure him based either on conventional political terms or on conventional ideological terms. Neither approach works. Approaching Trump with conventional assumptions has led nearly everyone to underestimate the impact of his message during all phases of the 2016 campaign.

I believe two themes have emerged that go a long way toward explaining why Trump is unconventional and has succeeded thus far:

  • The Fighting Post-Modern Man:  Part of him is a post-modern man who knows how to match wits with the postmodern Left. He knows how to take them on and beat them at their own game. He knows how to and relishes branding his targets and taking the fight to his opponents, and this quickly set him apart from the GOP establishment politicians of the sort voters had found wearisome and determined were more weak than polite. He has shown himself to be quite clever and has frequently been able to move onto the next skirmish, while the Left finds itself still fighting yesterday’s tired battle. The Left has never had to battle anyone like this before in the public square and it may be that Trump’s skillset is a necessary precondition for neutralizing the Left.
  • The Competitive Businessman: Another part of him is a highly competitive Queens businessman who is used to figuring out how to succeed in the marketplace and then playing to win and this gave him a different mindset from the political elites of both parties. Along the way, he has shown great instincts and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, something business people have to do in a world of transient competitive advantages.

But even these themes do not fully explain Trump and his appeal in this last election and I would like to propose evaluating him through the lens of a corporate turnaround operating executive. Like all analogies, it is an imperfect match but I believe it can provide some missing insights as well as a roadmap to future successes.

Characteristics of a Crisis Situation and How to Respond

I spent an earlier part of my career involved in leading corporate turnarounds and here is what a turnaround executive often finds in a crisis situation:

  • The situation is unstable.
  • Time is the enemy.
  • There is a broken culture that does not talk honestly or openly about what is wrong, about the elephant(s) in the room. This often paralyzes and politicizes an organization.
  • The situation will continue to deteriorate if the status quo remains in place. If that status quo persists too long, it becomes impossible to pull out of the doom loop.

Another characteristic of turnarounds is that many people in the organization know at least something about what is wrong, usually have ideas about what to do, and are blocked from either speaking up or galvanizing action by a leadership team who enabled the broken situation in the first place.

Entering into that cauldron, turnaround executives begin their roles knowing nothing specific, other than that a crisis is present. They have to quickly determine enough about what is going on so they can figure out a plan, build a coalition of people committed to change, and deliver short-term wins that begin to effect a turnaround.

Turnaround executives aren’t paid to be deep thinkers. But they are paid to rapidly identify the problems that will kill the company if left unchanged and to act on them quickly, adapting over time to changing circumstances. They cannot do it by themselves so having some strong colleagues is essential.

Turnaround leaders frequently have different temperaments and management styles from long-term company builders because the nature of their respective leadership challenges are different. Furthermore, turnaround leaders are usually transitory figures because ensuring delivery of significant change often requires major upheaval and a subsequent leader may then be needed to consolidate the restructuring gains.

When I parachuted into companies in crisis, I rapidly took four steps.

First, I interviewed people and asked three questions:

  • What is working?
  • What is not working?
  • If you were in charge tomorrow, what would you do differently?

Then I listened. I found that many of the same themes came up across the interviews. When that happened, I took those comments to be the facts on the ground. Other things might not have been so clear, so I filed them away as “possible facts” to be watched moving forward.

The interviews altered the dynamics in the company. It created subsequent hallway conversations among people where they acknowledged someone was actually listening to them and wanted to hear their ideas. That created hope that change might happen, and hope is something usually missing in a crisis.

Second, I got everyone together and we talked openly about what I had learned from the interviews.

Suddenly it was acceptable to talk openly about the elephant(s) in the room. Now the hallway conversations really exploded about how change felt imminent.

Third, I took the lessons learned from the interviews and group conversation and worked with the team to develop new plans that would stop the bleeding and create the possibility of winning again. These plans made the change real and gave people something tangible to grab onto.

The new goals were then publicized and performance metrics measuring progress against them was publicized on a regular basis. These results meant ongoing change was happening in undeniable ways and short-term wins would begin to follow. The latter is essential to maintaining momentum and hope.

It meant people understood how they could personally make a difference. People like to be part of a winning team. This galvanized the good people to jump in and converted some previous fence-sitters into joining a team dedicated to doing things differently.

I was not shy about firing people who resisted change and openness or who had a bad attitude. The good people already knew who these people were and the terminations only invigorated them more while also removing unnecessary obstacles.

Fourth, I encouraged the formation of non-executive teams to address specific issues close to their work responsibilities.

These teams deepened the personal ownership of change throughout the company, ensuring greater initiative and buy-in to ongoing change.

Finally, a turnaround focuses attention on a limited number of issues that really matter, recognizing that resources are limited and energy cannot be dissipated by tackling too many different initiatives.

America’s Crisis and Turnaround Plan

America needs a turnaround because our crisis is deep and ongoing:

  • We have $20 trillion of national debt, doubling the debt in just the last eight years. We have over $100 trillion of unfunded public sector liabilities for Social Security and Medicare. Those amounts are simply unsustainable, especially given the West’s below-replacement birthrates. Our children and their children will pay dearly for our fiscal irresponsibility.
  • We have also slashed defense spending to pre-World War II levels at a time when many parts of the Middle East have blown up, rogue nations are building nuclear weapon capabilities, and Russia and China are on the move.
  • Radical Islamic terrorism has targeted Western Civilization, creating mayhem in many parts of Europe and creating the possibility of the same here in the United States.
  • Global elites have become dominant, fighting to bring down the cultural identities of nations while many of our citizens no longer know the truth about their own American heritage and have the ability to defend its unique value.

How does knowledge of leading turnarounds impact an assessment of Trump?

Trump’s campaign stops amounted to interviews with the American people. Over time, he figured out what mattered to many Americans who felt marginalized and gave them a voice. In doing that, he accomplished something no other 2016 presidential candidate was able to do, a remarkable accomplishment for a non-politician and another example of how many have underestimated his ability to instinctively grasp what is important. That informed his thinking about what was important and gave them hope that change was possible.

I watched many of Trump’s rallies online as the election drew close and had a distinct sense that his tone had changed and he was connecting to people. He talked openly about the elephants in the room in American society in a way that few others did, challenging the existing political correctness and signaling how he didn’t care about ignoring it. He let people know he had heard and felt their pain and was conveying to them that he understood their plight.

Trump developed many specific plans during the campaign and has been moving on them since his inauguration. Both he and Bannon have said he is laser-focused on delivering on his promises. In a world where politicians lie routinely (and certainly Trump has told a few himself), Trump is treating the delivery of his campaign promises in the same way that a turnaround executive tracks performance against their plans.

But I think the turnaround analogy yields even richer insights when you look more closely at three things Trump has chosen to focus on over the months:

Whether intentional or instinctual, Trump has already grasped and moved on the first two topics and Bannon said at CPAC that the third topic—defeating the administrative state—is critically important to the Trump Administration’s agenda.

As important as a rebirth and recovery of the lost culture is, it won’t happen if these three problem areas are not successfully turned around first. If there is no oxygen, there will be no life. Or, in turnaround lingo, if you run out of cash, it won’t matter how pristine your aspirations for change were.

Much public debate about the administrative state still needs to be led by the Trump team in order to build a societal consensus about how to dismantle it. In parallel, we citizens have to answer two questions that are foundational to constitutional government:  Do we believe in liberty and that our rights come from Nature’s God, not from government? Do we believe in self-government and the personal character required by it?

Building a large enough coalition of people who believe in liberty and self-government, and then regularly delivering short-term wins that free citizens from the clutches of cultural Marxism and the administrative state will determine if America’s turnaround will be successful.

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