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One of the biggest challenges for a new Chief Executive Officer is to take over an organization with a dysfunctional culture, their performance, while acceptable, is not sustainable and the vast majority of the employees think everything is fine and dandy.

The biggest mistake said CEO can make is draw a line in the sand and noisily command change.  The employees, especially the key influencers, may hear you but you can bet the farm that, at least through the mid-term, they will ignore you.  If those key influencers have, or think they have, board connections, you can also safely predict they will line up to whine about one of life’s great injustices — you.

Recently I wrote about the importance of a turnaround CEO being a good listener.  If you are not a good listener it is hard to be a successful agent of change.  The smart people who do this work know they have to start with the culture they have inherited and then begin to steadily, albeit carefully, steer a new course that embraces a new set of beliefs and values.

While dire financial pressures — significant monthly losses and declining days of cash on hand — may buy you some time (read immunity) from the board, even that will not last forever.

A wise and very skilled turnaround CEO once said about a struggling hospital’s culture, “They do not have any problems that a few dozen terminations [his word: funerals] will not solve.  “When you get rid of the people who do not want to change and replace them with people who are passionate about survival and job security, you have a real chance to succeed.

“The trick is to balance the operational changes with the timing and location of the funerals.  Timing is important unless, of course, you are also preparing for a significant layoff, then you want to do it all at once,” he explained.

Tough?  Yes.  Cynical approach?  Probably.  But a turnaround CEO, even those with significant reputations for success and abundant skills, should never underestimate his or her vulnerability.  A keen sense of strategy and a heavy dose of self awareness are two essential characteristics a successful turnaround CEO must possess.