A lesson from Continental

I decided to start the new year in February this year.

It’s always been a ritual for me to lay out my New Year’s goals and objectives over the holidays. While I usually have a fairly complete list of goals to ponder come New Year’s day, they’re not the kind of goals that have been carefully planned and plotted. The rushed holiday season just doesn’t allow the time or the mindset to put together well thought out, quality plans. Therefore, this year, I decided to take the whole month of January to do diligent planning with my management team.

I came to this decision after reading an article a friend sent me. I was so inspired I decided to use it as a template to move forward with my goals and objectives for 1999. The article was about the turnaround of Continental Airlines, published in the company’s December 1998 in-flight magazine.

It was a story of how a corporate turnaround specialist, working with the airline’s new president, turned Continental around from losing more than $600 million in 1994 to making a profit of $224 million in 1995. The main advantage the new leadership had is that it came into the company with a fresh perspective. The new people didn’t waste their time making excuses or blaming each other for the company’s poor performance history. They simply went to work with the knowledge that the company was heading for a nosedive if they didn’t turn things around, fast.

“We saved Continental because we acted and we never looked back,” wrote Greg Brenneman, the turnaround specialist who is now the airline’s president.

While most companies may not be on the brink of failure, an action plan geared toward efficiency and profitability is something we can all benefit from.

At Continental, the two leaders started by making a list of everything that was wrong with the company. It was a very long list. They then organized the solutions to those problems into a strategy they called the Go Forward Plan.

Once I read this article, I knew that I and every other CEO could learn a lot from it. This was a story about how a company that was dead last in its industry and about to file for bankruptcy for the second time, turned into a profitable industry leader-in about a year.

I took this article to heart and scrutinized my company for the New Year. I sat down with my top management and we made a list of all the problems we saw in SBN. Knowing that it’s arrogant to think any company doesn’t have problems, we scrutinized everything.

But we had two basic ground rules: We had to view each area with a fresh perspective and we weren’t allowed to lay blame or point fingers. The purpose was to be solutions-oriented and look forward. Our goal was to reinvent SBN and stay No. 1 in our niche.

We decided to take this long list of problems and break them into four areas, similar to the Continental approach. The areas we looked at were finances, product, market and people. Like Brenneman wrote, “…saving Continental wasn’t brain surgery.”

Once we targeted all the problems in these areas, we split them up among us to come up with solutions for each one. Those solutions became part of our own Go Forward Plan.

Our mission was simple: to come up with a strategy that everyone in the company could understand. It is important to share your vision so there is unity and cohesiveness within the working environment. Also, it’s important to have values on which to base your plan. These are ours:

1. To operate with honesty, trust, dignity, and respect.

2. To treat all people fairly.

3. To have a united team.

It is too early to tell you how the plan is going at this time. However, I’m looking forward to sharing our progress with you. By now, you should be able to assess how well you’re meeting your own New Year’s goals. If you’re like most, and you’re realizing you didn’t spend enough time on them over the holidays, consider spending this month putting together your own Go Forward Plan.

Fred Koury is CEO of Small Business News. He can be reached at [email protected].