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.”

5. Link the company with internal TV. Yost has expanded the use and reach of the firm’s internal television network that keeps employees updated on company events and promotions and other information pertinent to the strategic direction of the company.

“We have over 100 50-inch flat-panel television screens across our organization,” he said. “We are now able to broadcast all of our daily happenings … in real time … throughout our corporate office, our distribution network and our 50 stores.”

“Yost is a firm believer in management by walking around and in deeply listening to what Art Van Furniture’s employees have to say.”

6. Publish annual “game books”. Adapting an idea for a promotional “game book” that Van Elslander began, Yost publishes annual booklets that explain to employees the company’s business plan for the year and helps align them behind it. They’re written by the company’s 16-member executive-leadership team through a collaborative process and outlines a series of specific initiatives that will be Art Van’s focus in the year ahead.

The themes reinforce Yost’s thinking about priorities for that year. Going in order from 2010 to 2015, the themes were Clarity of Purpose, The Next Level, Act Now, Focus, Grow, and finally, Inspire.

7. Positive thinking. Of course, like any good leader, Yost’s communication isn’t only one-way; he’s a firm believer in management by walking around and in deeply listening to what Art Van Furniture’s employees have to say. At the same time, however, Yost has spent much of his first five years at the company having to firmly push back against legacy negative thinking that he said seemed like it was from the Nineties. “People would list all the reasons ‘why not, and I would list all the reasons why,” he said.

8. Put your life on the shelf. Yost is nothing if not transparent, and he has made sure Art Van Furniture employees know what he’s all about by publishing a three-book series of autobiographical and inspirational musings under the main title, Pumptitude. “Attitude determines altitude,” Yost said in one of his favorite aphorisms, followed immediately by another: “If it doesn’t start in your inner mind, it’s never going to occur in the outer world.”

In another device meant to inspire, two years ago, Yost began publishing a book he called the 68-Day Challenge. Described as a “process to jumpstart your New Year,” the book initially was meant as a way to help employees focus on goals for the company—but then grew into a sort of general statement of encouragement toward their individual goals as well.

“We’ve seen people lose 40 pounds and others quit smoking,” Yost said, “and some decide to take piano lessons. All of it is inspiring people to make more of themselves.”

And why 68 days? “That’s about 20 percent of the days in a year,” he explained. “And if you set the first 68 days of your year right, the remaining 80 percent goes along with it. It’s like [choosing] a flight and [then] determining your basic direction at takeoff.”

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