Supermarket giant A&P was in dire need of a major financial and operational overhaul. Its problems had been mounting for a while.  It was clear to Sam Martin when he took over as CEO in July of 2010 that he was going to have to apply the frameworks and leadership skills he had developed over his career to lead the organization through a substantial turnaround covering every aspect of the business.

According to Sam five things are always necessary for a turnaround:

  1. Installing a strong management team
  2. Strengthening liquidity
  3. Reducing structural and operating costs
  4. Improving the value proposition for customers
  5. Enhancing customers’ in-store experience

Since each situation is unique, the challenge is figuring out which of those five are in place and which need to be addressed. At A&P, Sam faced a situation in which “all five were woefully in need of being addressed.” He was concerned that the situation would deteriorate and that he needed a “path to success” so he could rally the larger team behind his view to success – fast. As Sam explained to me when I interviewed him,

“It was essential to have an articulated plan available to share robustly around the organization and with all our stakeholders…If (our employees) are not properly armed with the right information, they will give the wrong message – because they’re going to give a message anyway. So getting the right message in the right hands quickly is important and essential to getting off on the right foot and having any chance of success in the outcome.”

In particular, Sam reviewed what had made A&P a great company across vast distances:

  1. Innovative spirit
  2. Development of the core people including management
  3. Focus on the customer

He then mapped out the imperative and went to work, implementing the various aspects of the plan:

  • Announcing the closing of 25 stores to “strengthen A&P’s operating foundation” (August 13)
  • Hiring Paul Hertz as EVP of operations (August 18)
  • Hiring Carter Knox as head of HR (August 19)
  • Installing Jake Brace as Chief Administrative Officer because of his “successful turnaround experience” (August 21)
  • Appointing Tom O’Boyle to head merchandising, marketing, and supply and logistics, completing the team to lead the “turnaround initiative”

By the October 22 earnings call* Martin was able to say with confidence that “there should be no doubt that this management team is moving with urgency.

Leading an organization into and through Chapter 11 or any turnaround is tough stuff. People generally don’t like change and they certainly don’t like uncertain change. Any time an organization goes through this, there are tremendous unknowns and stress. While it’s in no way certain that Martin and his team will be able to help A&P regain its former glory across all of its previous vast distances, they have been clear and consistent in driving the turn-around imperative. That helps a lot.

The burning imperative is a cornerstone building block and involves creating an understanding among team members what they are supposed to do immediately and how this works with the larger aspirations of the team and the organization. Everything pivots off a business’ mission, vision, objectives, goals, strategies, plans and values. So think through these components:

Headline: The all-encapsulating phrase or tagline that defines your burning imperative

Mission: Why are we here, why does the business exist, what business are we in?

Vision: Future picture — what do we want to become; where are we going?

Values: Beliefs and moral principles that guide attitudes, decisions, and actions

Objectives: Broadly defined, qualitative performance requirements

Goals: The quantitative measures of the objectives that define success

Strategies: Broad choices around how the team will achieve its objectives

Plans: The most important projects and initiatives that will bring each strategy to fruition.

What Sam Martin has done at A&P is a good example of step 6: Embed a Strong Burning Imperative

The burning imperative is a sharply defined, intensely shared, and purposefully urgent understanding from each of the team members of what they are “supposed to do, now.” Get this created and bought into early on—even if it’s only 90 percent right. You, and the team, will adjust and improve along the way.

Click here to read about each step in the playbook

Click here for YouTube videos highlighting each step


The New Leader’s Playbook includes the 10 steps that executive onboarding group PrimeGenesis uses to help new leaders and their teams get done in 100-days what would normally take six to twelve months. George Bradt is PrimeGenesis’ managing director, and co-author of The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan (Wiley, 2009). Follow him at @georgebradt or on YouTube.

*Thank you “Seeking Alpha”