Female Leaders in Turnaround Crises


On February 24th, Sheila Smith spoke on the Female Leaders in Turnaround Crises panel at the 27th Annual Dynamic Women in Business Conference at Harvard Business School. The event, organized by the Women’s Student Association, brings together female business leaders at different career stages to share their experiences.

The Female Leaders in Turn Around Crises panelists included Sheila Smith, Advisor at Gordon Brothers, Lisa Poulin, former Principal at Deloitte, Gail Horwood, Senior Vice President at Kellogg Company and Lauren Coyle, Division Vice President at DaVita. The discussion was moderated by Mary Ellen Mondi, Vice President Marketing Communications & Digital, Emerson Automation Solutions.

The conversation ranged from how to know if a turnaround is needed and the difference between a capital “T” Turnaround and a lowercase “t” turnaround. The panelists also shared their stories and wisdom on how to motivate teams, how to gain and maintain control, when to cut losses, and, of course, how to find humor through it all. Below are their takeaways.

Make decisions. A lot of bad can come from making no decisions at all. Similarly, companies in turnaround need to commit to one course, which by definition means other paths get cut. Making those decisions is critical to restoring the business and making a positive contribution. It can be tough, but in a turnaround the goal is to live to see another day.

Don’t be afraid to fail. In turnarounds in particular, everyone needs to reconcile with the prospect of failure. It’s a possibility, and it’s important to be honest about that. And in a “t” turnaround, the faster the pace of failure, the faster the learning process. Above all, perfection should not impede progress.

Practice learning agility. The determinants for success in the turnaround industry are changing as the pace of change increases. Adapting to new environments, learning from each new conversation and scenario and always moving forward are the most critical criteria for success in the turnaround industry.

Focus on now and next. There’s tremendous short term pressure in many businesses and in turnarounds especially. The now and next approach allocates 80% of effort to immediate needs and 20% to future, blue sky thinking. This structure gives people the freedom to work on things and not be judged immediately. It can be a big motivator.

Be human. Turnarounds can be intense and unsettling for the teams that are affected. It’s important to remember that it’s not personal. Managing emotions individually and across teams is key. Businesses are led by people and run by people. It’s important to keep everyone engaged. Have an open door. Be authentic and be empathetic. It’s possible to do both.

Take chances. Nothing is more exciting and challenging than taking something and trying to make it better. Things are constantly changing in the turnaround industry. Taking a chance can make a tremendous impact. Ambiguity is opportunity.