Sean Sullivan was recently named Turnaround Practitioner of the Year at the Insolvency & Rescue Awards following his work with a healthcare provider that was rocked by an abuse scandal.
In 2011 a Panorama investigation exposed the physical and psychological abuse suffered by people with learning disabilities and challenging behaviour at the Winterbourne View hospital.
There was an outcry with Prime Minister David Cameron saying he was “appalled”. Castlebeck, the company which ran the hospital along with a number of others, brought in Sullivan, (now available through Delville Management), to save the situation.
After two years, more than 2,000 jobs were saved and 52 hospitals preserved by selling them to other trade operators.
He spoke to Recruitment Grapevine about the assignment’s challenges and shares his tips on how to conduct a successful turnaround.
The failure that you saw on the TV was not a one-off moment- it had taken years to get to that level. The secret filming was just a snapshot of what happened but actually there were other difficulties in the business that had to be dealt with immediately.
The project required a complete refurbishment of senior management and the Board of the company, as well as most of the middle management and 80% at unit management level.
This bubble of activity was within a zero-tolerance approach. I couldn’t risk any more secret filming or any more service failures.
I’ve dealt with a number of assignments of this nature and you become, if not battle-hardened, used to steering large groups, some of whom are very technically-able professionals, towards a new direction without upsetting too much of their professionalism or the special things that they bring to the business.
My opening gambit is usually to speak to everyone in the Head Office that I can on the first day, whether it’s the cleaner or the Chief Operating Officer and assure them that we’re going to fix this issue. Once people realise that you’re going to do something about it and you display the signs of early thinking and assurance people will start to approach you with their problems.
Then you get someone from an operational position telling you what they think the solutions are and you say “I’ll back you on the ones that we think we can do”.
There is another trick – grab the chequebook. Hold it and say no one gets paid until I can find a reasonable reason for them to be paid. No direct debits, no standing orders and a cheque book in my office along with the Finance Director – form a queue at the door and let’s work through what we’re really paying for.
None of these businesses run into trouble without financial distress. Financial distress puts awkward pressures on all sorts of areas of the business and suddenly, within a three or four hour period of doing a cheque run, you’ll get to see what’s going wrong.
For example, an agency cheque being written for a very large amount. You find out it’s because 30% of staff are agency and you think “hold on now, I’d like that number to be ten then five per cent and that cheque to be smaller”. So your next port of call is the HR Director and so on. This is not rocket science.
As the old guard becomes unseated and new individuals come to prominence. They may have been in the business for some time and now start to show their worth. You can find mini-stars sitting in the business who are really bright and you think “why didn’t management pick this person out before?”
Now look at them. They’re obviously grateful for the opportunity to shine and you can trust them through the period of the turnaround and they’ll probably go on to greater things later in their career.
When you get large businesses there are going to be people in there that will be invaluable. Finding them and then utilising their skills is the trick.
By Recruitment Grapevine