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The Epic Leadership Challenge: Part 2 of 4

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*Post was written during my prior employment with McGraw-Hill Higher Education, and prior to accepting my position as CEO of MV Transportation. The opinions within the article are my own, and are not a reflection of McGraw-Hill in it’s current form. 


Re-invent an old economy print textbook publisher and build it into a high growth personalized learning, educational technology and services powerhouse.

In the first part of this four part series, I established the need to build a leadership “lighthouse” when taking on leadership challenges that are complex and fraught with peril.  In the case of re-inventing McGraw-Hill Higher Education, the challenge was epic.  Further, I noted that it’s critical to place the building blocks of your lighthouse in proper order.  In my lighthouse, it is talent first, culture second, and strategy last.  Strategy last?  I will explain that in my fourth and final post.


Strategy is meaningless without a strong and very deep bench of talent throughout your company.   If your organization is broken, under-performing or has failed to transform in a changing environment (or all three!), look first at the leadership and make IMMEDIATE changes!  Fail in this and all is lost. Further, always remember that ‘A’ players hire other ‘A’s and ‘B’s hire ‘C’s!  Therefore, if your leadership team is filled with ‘B’s and ‘C’s, you can only imagine what is running rampant throughout your organization.  Note: Before you accept an epic transformational leadership challenge, you must understand and internalize FOUR truths from a talent perspective:


Making swift and deep talent changes is not for the faint of heart.  If the challenge is significant, you will run into an “anti-you!” buzz saw each and every day.  Understand that poor performing companies have a system (sometimes even formalized!) for hiding ‘C’ players as a part of their culture and they know how to deal with the new sheriff in town.  A boss once said to me during the midst of a major turnaround, “once the town is cleaned up, Brian, and we no longer need the Sheriff (meaning me), what happens to the Sheriff?”  Be strong!!  It is essential that you break the protectionist system.  It’s messy and it’s hard (really hard).  Note: At the end of their careers, most even wildly successful leaders will tell you that they wish that they had moved faster on under-performers; that they had worked much harder to create a culture of accountability (a merit-toc-racy!).

Tip:  Success here requires intense rigor and attention to detail.  Always remember that we are who our records say we are. You will hear endless explanations for why this person or that person has a terrible record over time.  Stick to the facts.  Stick to the data.  Make decisions.  Find a great HR partner for checks and balances, but ultimately you are accountable for the level of talent and everything else in the company.  You must make decisions and they are yours to make.


Do not accept big-time leadership challenges if you are not willing to put your job, career, and reputation on the line every day. Moving out poor performing leaders and talent on a large scale will put your position immediately at risk (trust me on this one; this is my fourth successful turnaround).  Even if you think you have buy-in from everyone during the interview process (we want real change—we need it—we must have it—you’re hired!!) and you are explicit about what you intend to do, you will not and do not have their full support .  After all, when the rubber meets the road, change is scary.  A very senior leader once said to me a year after I was hired to lead a major turnaround, “we thought you were just selling yourself in the interview, we didn’t actually think you would do all of that!”  Accept that your job is under threat from the first day or excuse yourself from large scale turnaround and transformative leadership opportunities.  Again, big time company re-inventions and turnarounds are not for the leader who is “faint of heart.”

Tip:  Keep your personal expenses low.  When most people get the big promotion, they often buy something (or a lot of things!).  Do. Not. Do. That!!  Focus on the job at hand and not on paying off the new house, car, kitchen, or whatever.  How effective can you be when it gets messy (and it will get messy) and you’re worried about household debt?


And the most important truth, you must have an unshakable belief in your ability to ATTRACT top talent under any circumstance and in your ability to teach others how to do it or you will fail.  You must create the dream (the vision, which is different from strategy) and then make top talent curious enough to join you.  Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, once said that you will know that you are a great leader when people follow you merely because they’re curious.  You must be able to make ‘A’ players curious enough to follow you, and do it with lightening quickness, or whatever base of support you thought you had will evaporate.

Tip:  Keep your profile – inside and outside – your industry very high (enormously high!).  Become, for example, a master of Twitter, blogging, Facebook, Linked-In, and more.  Remind the world of the great things that you’re doing to re-imagine and re-invent your team or company.   Creating F.O.M.O. (fear of missing out!) is one way to bring in the ‘A’ players.  And, when it gets messy in the early days, it’s harder to fire a vocal, public, and optimistic leader who is bringing in all of the talent!!


Whenever you accept a leadership challenge within a large team or a new company, you must look for two things: gifts in people and product.  DO NOT ignore the ‘A’ players within the existing company.  They are there and you need the existing ‘A’s to become your champions or you will fail.  In the case of McGraw-Hill, I found a lot of A’s and promoted as many as quickly as possible.  In one case, I promoted a leader five levels to Chief Sales Officer (someone who had never been a sales manager before!).

Tip:  Listen to the feedback, read performance reviews, examine the track record, and then spend an ENORMOUS amount of time with those ‘A’s you think can scale BEFORE you promote them.  For example, I spent no less than 100 hours interviewing my Chief Sales Officer before I promoted him up five levels.   If I got that wrong, my proverbial goose was going to get cooked.

All of this sounds horribly stressful.  I understand that.  Because of this, I am often asked why anyone would accept the challenge to turn around a big team, company or industry.


Winning is joyful, but it isn’t free.  It comes at a cost.  There’s joy, light, and a lot of winning at the end of it all.  Get your talent right and you will have an optimistic and top performing enterprise filled with ideas, innovation, courage, real joy, and success!  The successful transformation and turnaround of McGraw-Hill Higher Education began here.  It always has been and always will be about the talent.  True in my company and true in yours.

If not now, when?

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  • Margaret

    Brian Kibby – You are fierce, and I love it!!

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