Leading turnaround culture change – My personal experience

Culture change at a bank

Culture change at a bank

Every so often you will draw the short straw and get an unenviable assignment where you would need to orchestrate a turnaround culture change.  The department or the team would be in shambles.  Nothing will seem right and you will feel depressed.  There will be negative attitudes all around and your spirits will be dampened.  You will feel like quitting.

But, a quitter never wins and a winner never quits.   As a strong leader and a motivated, positive personality, you want to turn things around.

From personal experience, I believe the second (“rock-bottom”) situation allows the effective leader to make a mark in more emphatic fashion.

There are two reasons for this:

a) In the first case, everyone is in denial and no one is certain how much further down things will go.  This makes it very difficult to predict doomsday and propose drastic measures.  Leadership may not invest time and money in analyzing root-causes.  Short-term measures to just treat the symptoms would be put in place.  Generally, people would await results of such measures and hope for the best.

b) When things hit rock-bottom, a sense of urgency and a state of panic will set in.  Senior management would be more willing to entertain proposals for major changes, consider long-term measures and also allow overhauling team composition.

I would always urge the aspiring leader to pick the second “rock-bottom” assignment, if the option is available.  It may seem the riskier and more challenging option, but provides the opportunity to showcase one’s effectiveness.

Allow me to relate to you the story of a bank branch where I worked in 1995.  When I was given the assignment (I really didn’t have a choice), the branch situation resembled the “rock-bottom” scenario.  It was a mess.

In this post, I will describe the state of business at the branch, the culture prevalent there, and my personal situation as I took up an official position there.  In the next post, I will continue the story and narrate important events that contributed to a big change in culture at the branch.

The situation

In 1995, I was posted to a semi-rural branch of State Bank of India as Assistant Manager.  The branch was about 80kms from Mumbai (my home city) and not far enough to warrant renting a place there.  But the transport infrastructure was poor and therefore I had to endure a grueling daily commute.  Additionally, a fraud had been committed at the branch some years ago, making the assignment an undesirable posting from a career growth perspective.

Acrimonious environment

Upon taking charge, I discovered that there was a lot of acrimony amongst the staff members (who numbered around 20).  Blaming others, avoiding work, just doing the bare minimum to get by and clock-watch were individual habits that I observed on day one.  To my surprise, they even ate their lunch separately and hardly looked like a team.  The manually operated branch’s books (accounting ledgers) were not balanced for months.  One couldn’t trust the balance shown in an account.  This exposed the bank to fraud and audit findings.  Loans were not followed up for repayment.  Previous inspection had rated the branch as “poorly run”, the lowest ranking a branch could get on the bank’s four-point scale.

When I showed up at the branch, I received a cold welcome.  While on the one hand having an additional resource was seen as a good thing, two things went against me.  First was the fact that I was from Mumbai and this was a small-town.  The small town, big city bias was hard to miss.  Second was my decision to endure a grueling two hour commute one way by the state transport bus every day. I was seen as an outsider and someone who does not want to belong to the place.  This perception of a big city official, who did not want to stay local, was pretty tough to overcome.  This made my job of blending in with the team that much more difficult.  In hindsight, had I opted to stay in the town, I could have sent a very effective symbolic message right at the outset.

There were two other officials, my peers who had been at the branch a year more than me.  These two officials commuted from Pune – another major city on the other site of the town.  They were also not local.  This meant that the three of us did not have an inside connection to the clerical staff of about 14.  More than ten of them were local.  It must have given an impression that the “management” did not care for the branch.

For that small branch, the two main operations were deposit account and loan account management.  Both were in a poor state in this branch.  If you add the prevalent staff and management attitude at the branch to the operations, the sum-total was not an encouraging situation for a young officer to step into.

The story continues in the next post.

Please share any of your turnaround experiences using the contact form or the comments section below

Image: (c) commons.wikimedia.org, author: Surya Prakash S.A.