I Have Inherited a Broken Organization – Now What?

By missioncontrol | 0 comments

So you’ve taken a new job – congratulations! It’s in an area you are passionate about, the Board Members are supportive and you’re up for a challenge.

Sounds exciting! But more often than not, before too long, reality sinks in.

It might not be the first day, or the first week, but soon enough – the honeymoon is over, and you realize you’ve inherited a mess!

Maybe there’s been a lag between when you joined and when the last leader left. Maybe the last leader was in cruise control, ready-to-retire, one-foot-out the door and thinking about their travel plans, but whatever the reason – things aren’t looking good.

Maybe staff morale is low, the finances are a mess, and internal systems are non-existent. Yet, somehow, (maybe you sold yourself too well in the interview!?) your Board seems to expect you to wave a magic wand, fix everything, and pronto. Not only that, but it seems like they expect that you’ll be able to make dollars grow on trees.

worried_womanWhat to do?

Well – first. You have my sympathy. It is a tough, tough position to be in. If it helps – rest assured, you aren’t alone. This situation is surprisingly common. But it also doesn’t have to spell disaster. I’ve struggled with similar issues myself, and I’ve seen and helped leaders go through the pits and emerge triumphant.

So here are four tips from me and all those leaders who’ve struggled through this before you. These tips will save you a whole lot of time and get the organization moving in the right direction sooner than you thought possible.

Tip #1 – Get the Lay of the Land.

Before you can plan to move forward, you have to know exactly where you stand. What assets and resources do you have? Not just financial resources, although you should also assess those, but what about the people? Before you do anything else, make sure you meet with or survey all of your employees. If you’re in a smaller organization, this is not so tricky, but if you’re in a huge organization, there are still ways to do this. Get creative. You could use town halls, on-line chat rooms, social media, or – my favorite for a huge organization – consider forming groups of people to act as your ears. Start by reaching out to small cross-organizational groups. Meet with them, listen to them, and together develop key questions for them to ask others, then cascade the listening through the organization, and have them report back. What’s working? What’s broken?

Bear in mind that people may want to use this as a chance to unload and tell you everything that’s wrong with the organization, their colleagues and/or the previous boss. While it’s important to create a chance for people to vent, be careful – don’t let the venting go too long. Doing so can be disruptive and feed into a culture of negativity. Make sure you’ve heard the concerns – try to identify and repeat back to them the biggest things they see that need to be fixed, but then – shift the conversation to things that they are excited about. Help them see that this change (and your leadership) represent a chance for a clean slate. What are they passionate about? What is the untapped potential of the organization? What untapped potential do they have? Ask not just about their work life, but what they like to do in their spare time – sometimes you have untapped genius waiting to be redeployed. You don’t need to make any promises about what can and can’t be delivered at this point – but this simple act of conversation talking about passions and interest can very quickly and powerfully start to shift the overall tone of the organization.

Tip # 2 – Boost Team Energy

You may also find that not only do people have things to gripe about in the organization – but that the team seem to hate each other. That happens, especially if the last leader was a bit hopeless! Don’t despair – hope springs eternal. I remember inheriting exactly the same situation as a young leader – and after stumbling around in desperation, I happened to use a technique that I now realize has a long history and currency, and even used in schools.

You may already have done it, (even better!) but as a quick reminder or an introduction, it is incredibly effective, even on the most hardened and grumpy executives. It’s better for smaller teams, say less than 20 people.

Everyone sits in a room- each person takes a turn, and sits quietly while everyone else says something about them, moving around until eventually everyone has had a chance both to be commented on and to comment on everyone else.

The first time I used this approach, the group of people I was working with were furious with each other, and in the first hour – 10 out of the 20 told me they wanted to resign. Eek! But we had no time to waste – we had a huge project to deliver in just a few weeks. They were hoping for an airing of grievances, but I made them promise, for just the hour or so ahead – they had to go along with the exercise, and focus just on the positive. I had the added complexity that the previous leader was still there! So I had to find a way to keep it positive. They started out so cynically, they couldn’t find anything nice to say – and then bit by bit, everything started to change. Even the grumpiest people found they had some tiny observation of someone working hard, or making a contribution and bit by bit it built into a fantastic starting place to move on from

Of course, in all likelihood – you may decide to make staff changes down the track, but in the early days – it’s often better to work with what you have and get to know the staff better. This exercise puts people in the right frame of mind to be their very best selves. Easier for you, easier for them.

Tip #3 -Rack Up Some Quick Wins

I know you have a list as long as your arm that needs to get tackled. But make sure that in that first week, month and quarter – you have some quick wins. Pick the easy things of the list, enlist folks around you to get them done and shout loud and proud about the changes. Get that insurance policy up to date, count your client numbers, buy some nice posters for the office, and so on. These small things can make the world of difference.

Tip #4 – Rally the Board, the Right Way

Oh the Board, the Board! The bane of every nonprofit leader’s existence. They hire you, they fire you, they sound like a good idea, they never answer their emails. Well – while a lot of the blog posts and podcasts on Mission Control over the next 6 months will get deep into topics about the Board, here’s one thing you can do right now.

You’ve got to give them a realistic view of what you’ve inherited, to manage their expectations about what can and can’t be done. But be careful – for every issue, missing system or pain in the butt-employee you’ve inherited, there are two ways to share that news. One is going to cause you a lot of problems, and the other will set you up for success.

Let’s imagine two interactions, both at a board meeting.

Leader opens with:

“.Listen, this organization really has some big, big issues. You haven’t been insured for the last year, it looks like there may have been some hiccups in the financial processes, we don’t have a list of clients, staff turnover has been high, and by the way, it looks like one of your junior-level employees had their hands in petty cash. This is a mess.

Now, I’m going to clean this up, but I’m going to need your help. You’re going to need to do a much better job of reaching out to your networks and raising funds to get us through the end of the year”.

So, let’s think about the Board. Put yourself in their shoes. What might they be feeling at this point? Like they’ve done a great job over the last 5 years? Or might they be feeling a little defensive? Might they be feeling like perhaps you’re telling them they didn’t have their eye on the ball, even to the point of potential criminal negligence? And is that the point in a relationship where you want to go out and advertise your organization to your closest friends and network? So they too can get involved in supporting a now seemingly very shaky organization? The answer is no. They’re feeling under attack, and may respond by blame-shifting and attacking you.

So let’s try that again:

“I have had a chance to meet with 30 staff from across the organization. I’ve heard some fantastic ideas from client-facing staff, mid-level staff and senior staff for how to strengthen and grow the organization. Jenny, a social worker, suggested that we streamline our client intake procedures, our head of finance and I have identified the quickest way to get our lapsed insurance policy up to date, and we’re drafting a new petty cash management policy to make sure we have tighter financial controls, and are in full compliance with our legal obligations – something that looks like may not have been working as well in the past.

I’m excited to launch the next phase of our work together, we are professionalizing and strengthening our systems that will allow us to boost our impact and grow our client base. Of course we need your help too – over the next few months we’ll work closely with you to discuss the best strategies to reach our to your networks, and how we can support you in taking this organization forward.”

Totally different. You can be honest – but you can also be positive. Don’t whine and moan. Don’t talk about how they’ve stuffed it all up – talk about how YOU are driving forward amazing changes to get things sorted. They will be thrilled they hired you. They’ll still understand there are issues, but they’ll be much more excited about reaching out to their networks.

Hang in there – it’s not easy. It is complicated and stressful. It may get worse before it gets better. But it is going to get better – you are changing the world – and you are awesome.


Liana Downey is an experienced management consultant, who has consistently delivered results for clients on critical topics around the world. Liana is an expert advisor to the Australian Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Prior to establishing Liana Downey & Associates, she led McKinsey & Company’s Australian government and social-sector practices, and holds an MBA (Public Management) from Stanford University.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Social Icons

Take Control Today, Download the first Chapter of MISSION CONTROL


Want to get more tips & tricks on succeeding as a social sector leader?

Sign up below!

You have Successfully Subscribed!