Michael Robb turned around CCR by asking the right questions Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2010

Michael Robb was prepared to be disliked on his first day.

Tough decisions would need to be made to keep the jobs of his 52 new employees and keep the organization, Center for Community Resources Inc., out of bankruptcy.

“You have to have courage that you’re not going to be liked,” Robb says about stepping into a leadership role in a turnaround situation. “You have to understand who you can trust, and put your faith and trust in those individuals. You have to know who the players are in the organization and assess that very quickly, because you can’t do it alone.”

Robb’s first days were spent talking to employees on all levels to determine the human services organization’s finances and problem areas. Connecting with employees early allowed Robb easier buy-in during the turnaround implementation.

That was 2005. Since then, CCR has grown its staff to 89 and has an annual budget of $4.5 million. Seeing the need to help nonprofit organizations, Robb and his team started Alliance for Nonprofit Resources Inc. and Nonprofit Development Corp. As executive director of the organizations, Robb oversees 130 employees and budgets of nearly $8.5 million.

Smart Business spoke with Robb about how to turn around a company.

Q. Where do you start in a turnaround situation?

What happens is sometimes you go into a situation and people feel like you should have all of the answers because you’re hired. You shouldn’t ask questions to be able to enact policies. People see asking questions as a sign of weakness or that you don’t know what you’re doing.

I always feel like you have to go into some kind of temporary incompetence. When you walk into a scene, you really need to understand what the culture and the structure is that you’re going to be working in. Those are two critical elements that you need to evaluate: How are things getting done? What is the philosophy behind which those things are done?

Q. To whom do you ask questions?

No matter where the company is at when you come in, you have to be open to everybody who might provide feedback to you.

Some do it willingly; they just come to you. They may come to you for a lot of different reasons and a lot of different motives. Others, you have to seek out. That’s where it gets difficult, because who is going to provide you with reliable information and who is going to provide you with information that is not necessarily in the agency’s best interest, but it’s in that person’s best interest, too. You have to evaluate that.

Q. What questions are you asking?

There is a double bottom line with nonprofits. The first bottom line that a lot of people focus on is good service provisions: Are we doing it well? The second bottom line is: Are we doing it at an affordable cost?

When you look at it that way, I carve out my questions really: What’s the finance process? Are we looking at our accounts receivable and our accounts payable? Are we managing our cash flow? Are we looking at a cash basis or an accrual basis? That dictates a lot about how an organization runs and can survive. Who is in charge and who is making the decisions on how money gets released? Who is making the decisions on how money is being sought? Once you find out who is doing those things, then you can start asking the process by how they make their decisions.

Q. How do you get staff buy-in on ideas and strategy moving forward?

On two fronts: Is it going to make their jobs better and how they do their work better? Is it going to make their overall experience of being within an organization better? Sometimes people look at coming into a place on two fronts: I like my job, but I hate my employer.

What are you trying to do to meet those two things? You have to understand what the employees want.

I always found benefit from meeting with staff over those brown-bag-lunch meetings. You sit down at lunchtime. I’d buy pizza. And I’d say, ‘Here are some of the things going on. What are your concerns? What are you worried about?’

I got a great amount of feedback, which I thought was really relevant. In those meetings, I would say, ‘I’m going to take your feedback, and we’re going to communicate back. If we can’t accomplish those things, here’s the consequence.’

If you can use not just words, but bring in some handouts to show the staff, ‘Here’s what it currently is. There’s our bottom line.’

Q. Are there other essential steps that must take place?

You have to be visible when you’re coming in on a turnaround. We had a couple of sites, and I made a point to always be at the other site on a weekly basis. Actually spend time working there. I didn’t have a designated office. I would pick a conference room, and sometimes I would get kicked out because there was a meeting.

People want to see that you’re there rather than behind some closed door. Minds start to race.

If you’re doing those one-on-ones, if you’re meeting with people on a regular basis, it really starts to help ease their concern. They can focus back on what they need to do be doing.

You have to give a time frame: ‘Within 90 days, we will have structural changes done or some process changes done.’ You may not know what those exactly are.

You have to understand where things are and pinpoint. Depending on where the cash is for an organization and where they might be in crisis mode will really delineate how quickly you have to react.

How to reach: Center for Community Resources Inc., (724) 431-0095 or www.ccrinfo.org