Turning round a failing business needs a leader who can win hearts and minds

As Ken Allen explains, when times are tough, efficiencies and savings are nothing without your people

Simplicity is the key to successful turnarounds. I should know – I spent 10 years transforming DHL Express from a business losing $2bn per year to one that now boasts a similar figure in annual profit.

This involved harnessing the energy and innovation in my global team of 100,000 employees, who – to put it bluntly – had lost their focus. I needed them to reconnect with the promises we deliver our customers and kick off a seismic shift in performance. Without this, it didn’t matter where I looked for efficiencies and savings, how much new business I tried to attract or what new technology I invested in, the change wouldn’t happen fast enough and certainly would not have been sustained in the way it has been. The financial story is impressive but, really, it’s a story of human motivation and, as a result, the company is now recognised as the fourth best place to work on the planet.

There was no way I could do this on my own. It was important for the 20,000 managers to also believe in the power of motivated people – transformational change on this scale is not for the fainthearted. And that’s not an easy task when the average tenure of those in leadership roles is more than 20 years. We’d lost our way when it came to leading our people, and this had to change. I made a rallying call for my leadership to each influence 1,000 team members. If we could do this, together we could make change happen. 

Next, we needed to find and celebrate our superstars. They would be the facilitators and ambassadors of the programme; 2,000 were identified in the first year. They ran events, rallied their colleagues and acted as the pathfinders to the future. People liked them and wanted to be like them. They helped the others believe they could be superstars too.  

If you want to have the superstars of the industry work for you, you need people in leadership roles who know how to lead and inspire them – and that starts from the top. I led from the front by running the first two-day programme with my top 200 leaders. I set the very clear expectation that they would also teach classes and be role models, and that if they weren’t up for this then they weren’t up for the turnaround. 

I hold the simple belief that a turnaround strategy is only successful when everyone in the business knows what it is and what they can do to make it happen. My employee strategy is simple, understood and executed by 100,000 people across the globe every day – a clear chain reaction that starts with motivated people. Without that, you have nothing, but with motivated people you can change everything.

And the results speak for themselves. The main reason I made such a difference is because people saw I genuinely cared about them, the customers and the business in general. It’s as simple as that – you can’t fake it. And when employees see that in their leader, they will go above and beyond to get results. 

Ken Allen is former CEO of DHL Express and author of Radical Simplicity