How the “Go Test” Can Help You Drive Transformation in a Turnaround

Experience has taught me that when starting a turnaround, you typically confront three distinct groups of employees: “Go-Go’s,” those who need little, if any, convincing to fully engage in the effort; ”Go-Buts,” those willing to enlist but who first need to understand why drastic steps are needed; and “No-Go’s,” those who will resist any and all attempts to shift the status quo.

This axiom tends to hold regardless of industry or company size, which I learned firsthand in two separate leadership stints—the first with AT&T, one of the oldest and largest companies in the world, and a second with OPUS360, an Internet start-up that wanted to “change the way the world works” via project-based labor. In each instance, I was recruited to drive transformation amid tough market conditions and sagging business performance.

Though the two situations warranted starkly different approaches to gain and retain customers, compete more effectively, raise capital, control costs, and build stronger stakeholder relationships, the centerpiece of my strategy at both was a simple singular tool that has yet to fail me. I call it the “Go Test.”

Empowering Chiefs with the “Go Test”    

To optimize organizational performance, you need empowered people at all levels. I call them Chiefs. In my case, I needed people I could trust and who could attract and engage others with the same attributes. When I arrived at AT&T, there was no shortage of HR data. In fact, the volume of personnel information was overwhelming; unfortunately, most of it was useless to me.

That lack of information utility became clear when I asked one HR manager, “How many of our employees are on performance-improvement programs?” He was startled by the question. “Why?” he asked. According to the files, everyone was doing a terrific job and had been for years.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now realize this was my first true glimpse of a culture that placed more value on internal relationships than those with external constituencies. “Okay,” I thought. “It’s time for the ‘Go Test’.”

In deploying the “Go-Test,” the first critical step is to identify your “Go-Go’s,” who usually make up about 25% of employees. They tend to be the most enthusiastic about taking a new direction and will not need a lot of encouragement to get going. They are your natural leaders. As a result, once you find them and learn what they need to be successful, you help remove internal obstacles and get out of their way.

A second group, the “Go-Buts,” usually represents plus or minus 60% of your team. They’ll require most of your attention. These individuals want to believe in a new future, but they first need some support—in the form of reassurance, additional data, or some time to accept, endorse, and engage in the effort.  Each individual will have unique needs, so it’s up to you to decipher what’s stopping each of them from going all-in, and then helping them fix such issues. Time with this group is well spent.

Finally, about 15% of your employees can be made up of the “No-Go’s.” They’ll have little, if any, intention of accepting change and will resist any appeals to join the effort to contribute what is required to drive a successful turnaround. The key with this group is to identify them as quickly as you can and eventually weed them out. Sometimes, that’s easy. At AT&T, anytime I heard the expression, “Whatever you say, Mr. Miller,” my internal radar indicators went off. If possible, offer these individuals the opportunity to do something they truly do believe in, either elsewhere in the organization or at another company.

At AT&T using the “Go Test,” we set records for employee engagement and customer loyalty. In turn, annual growth tripled from five to 15 percent. We delivered such growth for three years running, eventually transforming a $3 billion business unit into a $5 billion powerhouse. Following the same approach at OPUS360, annual sales jumped from $1 million to $10 million. Despite the NASDAQ crash and a bursting Internet bubble, we also completed a successful IPO, raising $85 million, while most other dot-coms were becoming “dot-bombs.”

Many people contributed to those successes at AT&T and OPUS360. The “Go Test” was key to identifying the Chiefs and removing obstacles to help them realize their skills and uncover their power to build sustainable growth. I trust it can also help you successfully navigate similar leadership challenges.

(This story was excerpted from Be Chief: It’s a Choice, Not a Title, slated for September 2018 publication. Pre-publication book orders can be made on Amazon, starting April 1.)