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Aug 28, 2020 | Baillie Parker, ON Blogs, ON In The News

Key Attributes of a CEO Needed When an Organization is in Distress

August 28, 2020 ─ From a leadership and hiring standpoint, transforming businesses and driving change is no easy task. To accomplish the kind of sweeping, transformative change organizations often require, a transformational or “turnaround” CEO is necessary.

ON Partners’ Baillie Parker, who often works with private equity firms to place CEOs and other C-level executives in portfolio companies, notes that “the ideal turnaround CEO candidate possesses a unique set of attributes that make him or her the right choice for organizations in distress. We’re inevitably moving into a period in which companies are becoming financially unstable and will need someone to lead them through a difficult period onto a path of profitability.”

Here, Parker outlines the top characteristics to seek out in a CEO who is capable of leading a company out of crisis.

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Past performance is the greatest indicator of future performance


Look for a CEO who has previously led successful turnarounds. Within those turnarounds, closely evaluate the financial outcome of the business (s)he led to make sure the turnaround was due to more than just timing and broader market conditions.

Understands the importance of cash and cash management


Cash management is not just the responsibility of the CFO. Strong turnaround CEOs who have been through challenging times understand the importance of cash management and banking relationships. They should be focused on the numbers every day.

Operationally minded


This is turnaround 101, but these CEO candidates must be operationally minded. They will have to first find the low hanging fruit in immediate operational and financial improvement opportunities. And while they have to see the big picture, they must also be data-driven, with a focus on the details.

A highly strategic problem solver


Strong turnaround CEOs have the ability to quickly digest information and data and distill the underlying issues in the business. Once you’re far enough along in the interview process, let candidates review the financials and the board documents. Observe what questions they ask.

Look closely at their previous leadership roles and understand how they identified and prioritized problems and came up with a new strategic plan for the business. You don’t want a candidate who is only capable of solving operational issues, which is only one aspect of the turnaround. You also need someone with a demonstrated ability to create a new strategy for growth with a very specific timetable around tactics and execution.

On a recent CEO search for a distressed private equity-backed company, for example, our finalist stood out because he had previous successful turnaround experience. More importantly, though, he had demonstrated success shifting market focus from a troubled sector – in this case energy – into new higher growth markets.

A realist with open and transparent communication style


This person must have the ability to confront the uncomfortable. Once (s)he has distilled down the business challenges, (s)he needs to be able to communicate those problems to the team and create a realistic transformation story that everyone can understand.

During a CEO search for a troubled company, our private equity client was taken aback by the candidate’s directness voicing her concerns about the company’s strategic direction as well as its operational footprint. Ultimately, though, they realized this sort of candor was exactly what they were lacking.

Also, ask the candidate what mistakes (s)he has made in the past and in retrospect how they would do things differently. If the candidate is not self-aware enough to take ownership of past mistakes, (s)he will not have the transparency needed for a turnaround. Having the ability to acknowledge missteps and know how to correct them is key.

Strong sense of urgency


You want to look for a CEO who is decisive and moves quickly. Time is absolutely of the essence in turnaround situations so the ability to drive decisions at a rapid clip is critical.

A track record of making tough choices


This person will likely need to quickly make dramatic changes to the leadership team in order to ensure the turnaround plan can be successful. Moving away from legacy business models and/or processes may also be necessary.

Team builder


Given this person will likely change the make-up of the executive team, they’ll also have to make new executive hires and re-energize the existing team. Find out if this CEO has hired successfully in the past and look to see if his or her team has followed them from one company to the next. A turnaround CEO must be able to quickly get buy-in on the turnaround strategy from the executive team and the board.

Parker adds that “while the CEO’s leadership abilities are obviously key, a successful turnaround can’t happen without strong leadership at all levels of an organization. Considering time is truly of the essence, leaders need to mobilize their organizations quickly. Empowering your team and being decisive is critical.”

About ON Partners

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, ON developed a series of experience-driven tools designed to help clients and candidates, including an executive assessment and onboarding guidetips on how to interview virtually; and a collective forecast from ON consultants about what to expect post-pandemic across several industries, including supply chain, ecommerce, private equity, telecom and telemedicine, software and life sciences.

ON Partners propels an organization’s mission by building C-level and board leadership teams. Founded in 2006 by like-minded consultants as a values-driven alternative to the multi-service global firms they were leaving behind, ON delivers a better executive search experience. Named by Forbes as one of America’s Best Executive Recruiting Firms and to the Inc. 500/5000 Lists seven times, the firm is consistently ranked among the top 20 retained executive search firms in the U.S. For more information, see our results here.


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