8 Leadership Tactics From a CEO Who Orchestrated a Successful Turnaround

Call Yost’s method “symbolic leadership.” Named after the family name of the company, Art Van Furniture was facing very difficult times in 2009 at the trough of the recession—and doing almost all its business in hard-hit southeastern Michigan. So patriarch Art Van Elslander brought in Yost from a highly successful stint running The Brick, a Canadian furniture retailer.

Under Yost, Art Van Furniture has found expanded sales, new energy and a renewed sense of direction, with geographic expansion into Chicago and Ohio, addition of new retail brands such as Pure Sleep, and a recovering economy promising further success.

“One windy day in the fall of 2009, Yost carried a large sign bearing the word “Recession” to a Dumpster at the back of Art Van’s main warehouse and threw it in.”

But if there’s one thing that might explain Yost’s success more than any of the major strategic moves he has made in concert with Van Elslander—who remains chairman at age 82—it’s how this CEO communicates with his troops.

Here are glimpses at 8 tactics Yost recommends for CEOs in a turnaround situation.

1. Go for small wins first. This common, albeit obvious, tactic is popular because it works. “If you want to change the direction of your company and gain momentum, make little bets and compound the wins that get things in motion,” Yost told CEO Briefing.  

Within just a few weeks on the job, Yost declared that on Black Friday of 2009—when Michigan and America were still at their deepest point of recessionary thinking—Art Van Furniture stores would set a sales record for that crucial annual occasion. Stunningly, the sales-floor forces came through and did exactly that. Then, after similar posturing and prompting by Yost, Art Van Furniture also went out and set new sales records for the day after Christmas and New Year’s Day.

2. Make dramatic gestures. On an internal television network program, one windy day in the fall of 2009, Yost carried a large sign bearing the word “Recession” to a Dumpster at the back of Art Van Furniture’s main warehouse and threw it in.

“We had to get rid of that recession mentality … and there’s nothing more symbolic than putting something in a dumpster that is huge,” he explained. “It’s not so easy to climb inside a Dumpster to take it out.” Then he later went to the same Dumpster and trashed the word “No,” returning to the screen with a big sign that said, “Yes,” symbolizing, as Yost said, that Art Van Furniture was “no longer participating in the recession.”

3. Draw it on a napkin. Yost says that if a business idea is good, its creator should be able to draw or outline it on a napkin. “If you can’t put a business plan on that piece of paper,” he said, “then the likelihood is it won’t succeed.” Think of it as an elevator speech in print.

4. Personify the customer. To help the firm’s sales associates envision their customers, Yost began personifying them. The most important is “Busy Jenny” – a middle-income woman who’s 35 to 55 years old. “She’s a mom with a husband, a dog, an SUV and dance recitals and hockey practices to go to, and a career, and all of our businesses need to be greatly aligned with what she needs and wants.”

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Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.

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