By the time the U.S. Army Rangers are called in, the situation is already, or about to get, hot. The same is true for turnaround management specialists. By the time we are called in, the company is often in crisis. Chaos reigns, and the fog of war has set in.
How does a turnaround manager quickly make sense out of confusion, assess the problems and begin to get the team organized and moving in the right direction? As a graduate of the U.S. Army Ranger School — or a Ranger Tab holder — now working in turnaround management, I have effectively used my military training in numerous business situations. Ranger School is arguably the premier small unit tactics and leadership training course in the world. Stressed, sleep-deprived and underfed Ranger students do whatever it takes in any condition to accomplish their missions. Though I have never been underfed since I left the Army, I have been stressed and sleep-deprived and have faced complex tasks in difficult conditions. The tools and lessons learned from Ranger School have served me well, and they can do the same for you.
The Ranger Handbook, part of the basic kit of every Ranger candidate, contains techniques and methods for planning and leadership, which can be adapted to every situation that requires an action plan. These techniques are simple, yet powerful. Almost anyone, from the CEO to the lower level employee, can use them in a distressed situation.
Troop Leading Procedures (TLP)
Chapter two of the Ranger Handbook explains the planning techniques and procedures of infantry platoons and squads. Troop leading procedures describe a process, from start to finish, which a leader uses to accomplish a mission.
The procedures follow a logical flow, starting with receiving the mission through supervising its completion. Along the way, the procedure calls for sharing the mission with the troops along with a plan to accomplish it. This helps troops become ready to assist in planning and preparation. Leaders must conduct reconnaissance of the ground upon which the mission will take place. This helps leaders adjust initial plans to match the ground truth before issuing final orders. After that, the leader must supervise the execution and adjust as necessary.
Figure 1 is a civilianized approach to troop leading procedures. In my turnaround career, this serves as a reminder to practice Rangers leadership techniques, which are tested in the crucible of combat. They help me to keep my team informed and involved, to get started as early as possible and to adjust the preliminary plan based on sound analysis and other information gained from bankers, vendors and other stakeholders.
The troop leading procedures (TLP) are a process. The warning/operations order is a format or outline used to provide sufficient information and guidance to complete a mission. During a turnaround, the process outlined by the TLP sometimes happens as planned — following a logical sequence.
The warning/operations order, however, serves as a touchstone of what to include in a plan. It reinforces the first rule of being a Ranger — Don’t Forget Nothing. This format outlines the required plan elements for the planner and order recipient. This way, the planner won’t forget important elements such as giving a communications plan or adding areas for coordination in the execution.
Figure 2 depicts an army to civilian translation of the warning/operations order, which can be adapted for practical use in day-to-day business. This is particularly useful for planning complex projects involving several parties. It provides the turnaround specialist with a simple, logical outline to articulate the elements required for their team to accomplish the turnaround. Of course, the plan elements and level of effective execution ultimately drive success, but this format helps the turnaround specialist lead by clarifying the primary tasks team members are responsible for and clarifies how those tasks tie into the overall goal.
When the complexity of a situation seems overwhelming, this outline helps the user split the plan into logical parts, which helps manage the planning process and, ultimately, provides the team with a logical framework.
Execution, the most complex section, delegates specific tasks to members of the group. It’s not always obvious to team members that they must coordinate with others. The plan outlines when and where they must coordinate.
The outline has endless applications, from executing a critical negotiation to a marketing plan. Application to turnaround is especially powerful if you are filling a chief restructuring officer role and coordinating multiple sets of professionals and company personnel.
A Case Study
We had just kicked off what was to be a four-week-long business plan assessment. On day two, the mission changed when we concluded that cash would run out in two days. It was clear the client needed capital and, quite likely, a new business model. The client had to survive, though, to get to that point, so I went back to the team and gave them a new warning order.
They began a crash cash flow exercise that included a triage of critical vendors and payments. We planned who and how much to pay, set forth a plan to keep vendors shipping despite cash limitations, developed a communications strategy with the bank and vendors and set out the tasks to bridge to a capital raise. We worked to get it all done while assisting our client to raise capital, restructure the business and give the company a chance to see better days.
We made it clear to the team that we did not want the debt situation to worsen. We would pay for what was being shipped but not in advance. We communicated our liquidity profile constantly as we worked with customers and vendors. When it came to execution, we confirmed the liquidity manager knew the turnaround plan detailing how cost savings were expected to be made. Another team
member worked with the CFO on vendor relations. The legal team was directed to weigh in on how to manage creditors and to be ready to address and prevent problems.
Ranger training provides a leadership lab for young soldiers to hone their skills under stress just short of a combat situation. Part of the esteem for this training arises from the success of its graduates. The simple, easy to remember leadership skills, planning tools and techniques hammered into my memory during the training were perhaps the most powerful takeaways. I still choose to use them today, which speaks to their effectiveness. Turnaround managers can leverage this logical way of thinking to get things done in a stressful situation and to keep thoughts organized during a crisis. In the case study above, using the planning and execution techniques discussed here, we refinanced the company, and it lived to fight another season — Hooah!