Richard Lindenmuth has been called a “white collar superhero.” An experienced Interim CEO, he parachutes into major corporations and manages profound transformations and turnarounds under incredible pressure. At ITT, he led 12,000 employees through deregulation into record profits. At Styrotek, a California agricultural packaging company, he restored it to profitability in 3 months during a drought. His book, The Outside the Box Executive, is a crash course in extreme leadership, a savvy guide to management that contains lessons for all of us. Recently, we chatted about trust, engagement, settling down a jumpy workplace, and why an Interim executive is anything but a figurehead.
I’m curious about the genesis of your book’s title: The Outside the Box Executive. Why Outside the Box?
Companies are in their own box: a culture that is not only resistant to change, but often part of a company’s legacy. Yet often, this same culture loves their company (and their jobs) and wants to find ways to make it better. But an interim CEO hasn’t been part of creating that legacy. His or her job is to think beyond it: to spearhead profound change for an organization that’s under extreme duress. So one way to do this is to start quickly, with small and positive decisions that involve active listening to those inside that box, combining that information with solid, outside the box actions. If you don’t start by rejecting complacency, you’ll soon encounter that culture of resistance. But if you can galvanize people to work with you — and step outside that box — that’s an incredible effective position to lead from.
One of your recent success stories is Styrotek, in California. How did you wind up responsible for resurrecting a dying agricultural company in the middle of a drought?
In early last year, I got a call from Bob Jordan, President of the Association for Interim Executives — a great organization that specializes in rapid executive deployment. He knew my skill set, which includes a deep understanding of production and manufacturing, and years of experience with 11th-hour corporate saves. He told me there was a company in the food packaging manufacturing business that was having serious problems. Costs were out of control, equipment had been broken down, and production was at a standstill. The fact that there was a drought on was just another challenge to face, but it was also a key issue, since the production process at Styrotek depends on water. Styrotek makes the packaging for shipping table grapes — it’s an incredible operation that had just become mired in dysfunction.
Once you accept an Interim CEO role, how long does it take to start making decisions?
How long? No time at all. Interim CEOs, or any Interim executives for that matter, don’t have the luxury of taking their time. Once I arrive, it’s not about sitting down in the CEO office and inviting all the VPs come and introduce themselves, and then maybe a few days later we start looking at spreadsheets, and then eventually, I shake some hands downstairs. That’s not leading. I am installed to implement and execute strategy — whatever it takes. So sitting down is not on the agenda — and I mean that literally. If you want to find me, look for the guy who’s always on his feet.
You mentioned active Listening. And in Outside the Box, you talk about the necessity of becoming an active listener. What is active listening?
Active listening is a specific kind of listening, and it’s incredibly effective at building a bridge of respect and clarity between you and who you’re talking to. In a conversation, you intentionally and consciously repeat back what someone tells you. It requires that you actually hear what they say, and it shows that you are hearing it. Also, it means that if something isn’t clear (since not all employees speak like an MBA), you not only make sure you understand it, but make sure you’re on the same page. And I find that many employees are sadly unused to that kind of interaction with a company executive. Active listening tends to set people at ease, as they realize you’re not going to step over their opinions, and you’re truly interested in what they have to say. Further, it’s a tremendous way to learn what’s really happening. So I always tell people in executive roles: stop talking, and start listening. That’s where you’ll build the trust and respect of the company, which believe me, you need.
Trust has got to be an issue for an interim leader. How do you get people to work with you when they’re all afraid of what’s coming next?
If you’re talking about the uncertainty that pervades a struggling company’s workplace, I’m very familiar with it. Defusing widespread anxiety is critical to effective leadership. I approach it it level by level, and with empathy — remember, there’s a lot at stake for each and every person in the building. But I also work from a practical, no-nonsense point of view. Decisive, calm leadership will inspire confidence: many times, these are people who have been straddling a sinking ship for quite a while. I work to create a different workplace culture where failure is not punished and blame is not placed. Give people the room to try things; to point out issues or hitches as they happen. Failure can be incredibly useful for uncovering flaws in the system. If you believe your head’s going to get chopped off, you won’t stick your neck out. I need people thinking creatively.
If there’s bad behavior going on — what do you then?
I handle it swiftly and privately. I’ve taken VPs aside to let them know I won’t tolerate their withholding vital information, or playing politics: that kind of conduct is simply not going to fly. At Styrotek, I found myself being told some very damning things about someone, but I knew it was nonsense, because I had done my own homework. I was being fed a false line that this person was incompetent — an attempt at character assassination that was based on fear, sure. But that kind of toxic game-playing can have an awful, trickle down effect. It sets up an atmosphere of pettiness and mistrust at all levels. At another company, I discovered that a simple shipping problem had gone unaddressed because the manager didn’t think it was important enough. First of all, was not his call to make. And second, it’s unforgivable to not deal with an issue you actually know about. Quite simply, he’d reached the end of the line.
Back to Styrotek: how is the company doing now?
I’m pleased to say that in three months we restored Styrotek to profitability. One way is that my team was able to think out of the box — we did not hew to the status quo but thought beyond it. Originally, the company had a breakneck, 24/7 schedule of production during the grape harvest season. That constant pace meant that any kind of repair issue was devastating: there was no time to fix anything, let alone maintain it. If new employees came in, they didn’t get all the training they needed, as there was no time. Instead, I instituted a 365-day a year schedule at a lower rate of production, with regularly scheduled maintenance, time for repairs, and opportunities to train new hires. The move increased productivity, improved quality, and reduced costs by 20 percent. As for water, we found rentable water equipment, and we convinced the renting company to let us buy it instead. It arrived on a truck and went online in a heartbeat. Now we’re working on recycling a good percentage of our water as well.
You can find out more about Interim CEOs, and Richard Lindenmuth, at Association for Interim Executives.