In the 1990s Continental Airlines was struggling, even more than its troubled
U.S. airline peers. As the company’s then-president Greg Brenneman explained in a 1998 article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), “Continental ranked tenth out of the ten largest U.S. airlines in all key
customer service areas as measured by the Department of Transportation: on-time
arrivals, baggage handling, customer complaints, and involuntary denied
boardings.” The airline had already been in bankruptcy twice, and was headed for a third
round as its cash dried up.
In 1994, Gordon Bethune took the helm, with Brenneman becoming president and
chief operating officer. They staved off bankruptcy by renegotiating with their
creditors. And they launched an organizational turnaround that proved
remarkably successful, catapulting Continental from worst to best among big
By 1995, Continental was moving up on the Department of
Transportation’s (DOT’s) performance measures (see Figure 1). Its stock
price was soaring. And the turnaround stuck. The latest rankings by Consumer Reports place Continental first among the seven big U.S. airlines. Zagat’s 2007 survey of frequent flyers found overall ratings for the big airlines were
low and declining, with the “notable exception” of Continental. Continental was the only big airline, and one of only five
overall, to be a Zagat Top Spot.
The mid-’90s were also a time for change in New York’s police department
(NYPD). As W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne describe in their 2003 HBR
case study, “Turf wars over jurisdiction and funding were rife.
Officers were underpaid relative to their counterparts in neighboring
communities…. Crime had gotten so far out of hand that the press
referred to the Big Apple as the Rotten Apple.” In response, then-mayor
Rudolph Giuliani hired William Bratton to lead the NYPD, fresh from a
string of successful turnarounds of other agencies, including NYC’s
Though crime rates in NYC had started to decline in the late 1980s, Bratton’s arrival accelerated the trend (see Figure 2). Time wrote
in a 1996 cover story, “The drop became a giddy double-digit affair,
plunging farther and faster than it has done anywhere else in the
country, faster than any cultural or demographic trend could explain.
For two years, crime has declined in all 76 precincts.” As Kim and
Mauborgne note, the change wasn’t just a flash in the pan or a
nationwide trend: “Statistics released in December 2002 revealed that
New York’s overall crime rate [was] the lowest among the 25 largest
cities in the United States.”
Finding the Keys
These turnarounds are classic: rapid U-turns from the brink of doom to stellar
success. They may not last forever. But if a failing school could achieve
similar results for several years, thousands of students would benefit
permanently. How did they happen? This article explains what we know, from
plentiful cross-sector research, about how to engineer turnarounds within
existing organizations. It then identifies two critical policy issues that
states and districts must address to accelerate the prevalence of real,
successful turnarounds in education.
Education reformers faced with failing schools and districts tend toward one of
two camps: The Incrementalists hold that meaningful improvement can only happen
slowly, with soul-wrenching culture change leading to instructional change and
eventual student success. The Clean Slate Club believes the only way to fix
failing schools is to shut them down and start fresh, with entirely new rules,
staff, and leadership.
Both camps have it wrong, but for different reasons. The slow and
steady approach won’t work for chronically failing organizations. The
fresh-start method is much more promising, based on the dramatic
success of some newly formed schools serving tough populations. But
most start-ups fail or bump along in the purgatory of mediocrity, even
in sectors that, unlike education, enjoy abundant venture capital and a
ready stable of capable entrepreneurs. Moreover, troubled organizations
across sectors regularly transform themselves from bad to great without
a clean slate. The consequence of education’s failure to recognize
turnarounds as a means of school improvement is twofold: in education,
turnarounds have been tried rarely and studied even less. While
education researchers catch up, practitioners can use the turnaround
lessons of other sectors.
To identify what makes turnarounds successful, we reviewed dozens of studies
across a wide range of organizations: nonprofits of differing sizes, some in
highly regulated industries such as health care; government agencies with
varying missions; and for-profits in numerous industries. Case studies of
single turnarounds comprise most of this research, including studies of both
large, stand-alone entities and small units within larger organizations, closer
in size to schools. The turnaround precursors, patterns of action, and
chronically challenging environments we found were surprisingly consistent
across these varied venues, bolstering their potential relevance to both
districts and schools. Turnarounds were attempted when organizations were
failing by many measures, not just financial metrics.
While this article uses the well-documented Continental Airlines and NYPD cases
as illustrations, what happened in these two organizations is similar to what
we saw across the research. We coded the cases from this broad research to
reveal two overall success factors.
First, turnaround leaders work in an environment that gives them what we call “the big yes.” Second, bad-to-great transformations require a point-guard leader who both
drives key changes and deftly influences stakeholders to support and engage in
dramatic transformation. To be sure, staff help effect a turnaround, but the
leader is the unapologetic driver of change in successful turnarounds.
Effective turnaround leaders follow a formula of common actions that spur
dramatic improvement. The actions interact to move the organization rapidly
toward impressive, mission-determined results that influence stakeholders to
support additional change. Below, we explain the six most consistent
actions in the bad-to-great formula and provide an example of what each action might
entail in school and district turnarounds.
Focus on a Few Early Wins
Successful turnaround leaders choose a few high-priority goals with
visible payoffs and use early success to gain momentum. While these
“wins” are limited in scope, they are high-priority, not peripheral,
elements of organization performance. Early wins are critical for
motivating staff and disempowering naysayers.
At Continental, Bethune and Brenneman initially focused on what
Brenneman calls “the customers in seat 9C, the business travelers who
book the aisle seats in the front of the plane. They pay full fare, and
they travel a lot.” To win these customers back, Continental launched a
massive effort to refurbish airplanes inside and out, recarpet their
terminals, and upgrade food service, all in six months rather than the
four years originally estimated.
These changes might seem merely cosmetic. But in fact they addressed a
major concern of the customers most important to the airline’s success.
And the upgrades built positive momentum for further change. As
Brenneman recalls, employees “could see senior management finally
taking the actions they knew had been needed for years.” For a
demoralized organization, this kind of mission-focused early win is
vital to convincing the team that it can in fact be successful.
At NYPD, Bratton initially launched an effort to crack down on minor offenders.
While their offenses weren’t the city’s biggest crime issues, the effort helped convince skeptical citizens and
officers that the police could make a difference.
In schools, early wins must tackle similarly visible goals essential to the
learning mission. An elementary school might aim to raise reading scores to
within one grade level of year-end goals for 90 percent of 5th graders by the
first semester’s end. This is challenging in schools where many children are multiple grade
levels behind. But it is achievable, as many cases of high-poverty start-up
schools have demonstrated, and a necessary step toward achieving grade-level
pass rates at year’s end. All other changes can support this goal. Imagine the impact when teachers
realize that the school need never again graduate a class of non-readers.
A district also must focus early wins on student learning to fit the
turnaround formula, perhaps by adopting similar goals for one subset of
struggling children or a few low-performing schools. To achieve the
goals, the district must then tackle barriers blocking success for
those students or schools. For example, a district might arrange to
provide targeted schools with materials online to work around book
shortages or improve dramatically their access to interim assessment
data. Such online materials, assessment data, and other changes in
district management systems are not themselves “early wins.” They must
be used as tools to achieve rapid academic results and convince
stakeholders that additional focused change will produce more success.
Break Organization Norms
In a failing organization, existing practices contribute to failure. Successful
turnaround leaders break rules and norms. Deviating to achieve early wins shows
that new action gets new results.
In response to Continental’s financial struggles, an entrenched norm of
cost cutting pervaded the organization. As Brenneman explains, the
company’s “myopic focus” on costs had led to perverse tactics: skimping
on cabin air conditioning and flying more slowly to cut fuel use;
removing high-revenue first-class seats to squeeze in more passengers;
and eliminating corporate discounts even for the airline’s top
customers. Brenneman calls the result a “doom loop. By focusing only on
costs, the airline had created a product no one wanted to buy.”
Declining revenues sparked more ill-advised cost cutting, such as
morale-sapping wage reductions.
When Bethune and Brenneman took over, they pursued strategies that actually increased costs, like the plane and terminal upgrades. The airline started paying
employees more, based on performance. For every month the airline finished in
the DOT’s top five for on-time arrivals, each employee received $65. The on-time bonuses
cost the company $3 million per month, but improving the on-time record boosted
overall financials by an estimated $8 to $9 million per month.
Like many large organizations, Continental had accumulated hundreds of
regulations. The result was a nine-inch-thick tome known as the “Thou
Shalt Not” book. A central part of leadership’s plan was to free
employees to do what was needed to solve problems and meet customers’
needs. To make the point, the executives took a copy of the book into
the parking lot, soaked it with gasoline, and torched it in front of a
crowd of employees.
Bratton, too, made a practice of norm busting. At NYPD, he soon learned
that only 5 percent of the budget went to narcotics forces, even though
a high percentage of crimes were drug-linked. The reason? An assumption
that the department’s top priority was responding to 911 calls, rather
than to the kind of long-term, preemptive work done by the narcotics
unit. In addition, the narcotics squad worked Monday through Friday,
while narcotics activities and related crime soared on weekends. One of
Bratton’s early actions was a major reallocation of staff and resources
into narcotics, including shifting officers’ time to weekends.
In an elementary school, the leader might bend time-use norms by having teachers
provide rolling reading instruction as children arrive on buses in the morning.
Rescheduling classroom volunteers into lunch-hour chaperoning could replace
lost morning teacher-planning time. This schedule adjustment would add one to
three weekly instructional hours per child in many schools.
For districts, delivering individualized reading assessment and instruction to
every classroom via technology, for example, would require veering from
textbook and technology budgets, as these line items are typically separate.
Shifting dollars can ignite turf battles, because budgets are often equated
with number of staff positions and job importance of district department
leaders. The key is making the learning goal the organization’s clear priority.
Push Rapid-Fire Experimentation
Turnaround leaders press a fast cycle of trying new tactics, discarding failed
tactics, and investing more in what works. They resist touting mere progress as
Bratton’s most famous innovation was the introduction of the Compstat system, short for
computer statistics, which provided everyone from precinct staff to top brass
with detailed statistics and maps showing how patterns of crime and law
enforcement actions played out in different places and over time. The system
made possible big, department-wide strategic decisions, like the reallocation
of resources to narcotics work.
Perhaps more important was the system’s value for precinct commanders as a day-to-day management tool. The Time cover story on Bratton begins with an account of a semiweekly Compstat meeting,
in which a precinct commander is grilled about a rise in robberies and his
response. New problems demand new strategies, and the Compstat meetings were
designed to keep that fast cycle of response-measure-adjust going.
In a school, the leader might redeploy a motivated, technology-capable
staff person to provide Compstat-style reports of student-by-student,
teacher-by-teacher, grade-by-grade results on mandatory quizzes. This
effort would provide the fodder for making changes before semester’s
end. Most important, each person and team would receive timely data
about the progress of students for whom each is accountable.
In a district, new interim assessment data would provide feedback about what
schools, grades, and student subgroups are meeting goals. Slow progress would
be a trigger for district organizers to do some problem solving.
Get the Right Staff, Right the Remainder
Successful turnaround leaders typically do not replace all or even most staff at
the start, but they often replace some key leaders who help organize and drive
change. For remaining staff, change is mandatory, not optional.
At Continental, cleaning house at the top of the organization was a big part of
the turnaround. Of 61 officers, Bethune and Brenneman showed 50 the door. Some
housecleaning took place at lower levels as well, but an organization with
40,000 employees can’t possibly transform itself by swapping out all of its people.
Continental’s new “people strategy” focused on making dramatic change
mandatory for employees already in their positions. When the
maintenance department told Brenneman that plane and terminal upgrades,
his key “early win,” was a four-year project, Brenneman insisted on his
six-month schedule: he’d find someone else to do the work if the
maintenance department wasn’t up to the job. As it turns out, the
department was up to the job, once it was clear that change was
Bratton also mostly replaced leaders, not the rank and file. His
“number two” was a veteran officer who knew everyone at headquarters.
One of his first jobs was to help Bratton identify members of top staff
likely to oppose or seek to undermine his reforms, leading to what Kim
and Mauborgne call “a dramatic changing of the guard.” Bratton did
replace half of his precinct commanders, but not immediately. The
turnover grew out of the Compstat process. As Time wrote
in 1996 on Bratton, “Effective precinct commanders…merely get grilled
to a medium rare at Compstat. Those who show up unprepared, without
coherent strategies to reduce crime, are fried crisp, then stripped of
their commands.” Swapping out people was core to Bratton’s approach,
but it followed from his turnaround efforts rather than preceding them.
In a school, the total staff replacement advocated by the Clean Slate
Club would not be necessary. While not every teacher would be willing
and able to do what’s needed, most would rise to the occasion. The rest
typically reveal themselves during the “early win” phase and must then
The most important early staff decision would be the selection of an
organizer to drive the action plan. The person might or might not be
selected from the current staff and might be given power exceeding the
person’s current title and tenure. This individual would ensure, for
example, that analysis of student progress and instructional problem
solving happened regularly, timed with the quiz schedule.
For a district turnaround, the superintendent would need to tap a
trusted leader who could cut through the usual district machinery. This
leader’s team would need to include additional organizers who could
focus on implementation issues in targeted schools or student
populations, and each of these people would need to be accountable for
learning success among their assigned students. The superintendent
might also replace critical department leaders from the start, making
room for team members who can drive change.
Drive Decisions with Open-Air Data
Successful turnaround leaders are focused, fearless data hounds. They choose
their initial goals based on rigorous analysis. They report key staff results
visibly and often. All staff who participate in decisionmaking are required to share periodic results
in open-air sessions, shifting discussions from excuse making and blaming to
Again, Bratton’s Compstat meetings are a powerful example. These
regular gatherings brought together top brass with all 76 precinct
commanders, the police force’s key line managers. At every meeting, one
commander took the hot seat, facing questions about the precinct’s
performance that emerged from the Compstat data. How was the precinct
working to solve the problems the data revealed? Why was performance
going down on some key metrics?
The result was what Kim and Mauborgne call “a culture of performance….
An incompetent commander could no longer cover up his failings by
blaming…neighboring precincts, because his neighbors were in the room
and could respond. By the same token, the meetings gave high achievers
a chance to be recognized.” Some commanders used similar tactics within
their own precincts, extending the new culture.
Bethune and Brenneman, too, used data to drive change. As they were
poised to assume the leadership of Continental, the twosome met over
dinner for a week, poring over data and writing down “everything that
was wrong with Continental.” The result was a set of some 15 key
metrics that the pair decided to track rigorously and publicly over
time and compare with those of their competitors. Results on these
metrics, good and bad, became the central focus of a massive
communications campaign that leadership launched inside and outside the
“Using data to drive instruction” has become such a mantra in public
education that it’s important to pause here and explain how data
strategies in successful turnarounds differ from typical K–12 data
systems. The keys are using the right data to drive change and requiring all relevant staff to put their data on display in an open-air forum and then
face tough questions (and helpful problem solving). The process helps people
improve their practice, but it also transforms the culture.
In a school, staff capable of leading instructional change for learning results
would be identified by student progress data. Those not capable of leading or
accomplishing instructional change would be identified as well. The progress
data would provide the school leader with a guide to the staff changes that
would further improve student learning, and the achievement of early goals
would help build support for such changes.
In a district, progress reports would enable the leader to evaluate the
school-level leaders and district team members responsible for implementing
changes by tracking the results achieved for defined groups of students within
or across schools. Each of the staff leaders affected would need to be included
in regularly scheduled meetings to present their own performance data for
Lead a Turnaround Campaign
Successful turnaround leaders know that change of any kind is hard and that
people resist it for many reasons unrelated to success. Leaders use a
consistent combination of motivating and maneuvering tactics that include
communicating a positive vision of success; helping staff personally feel the
problems customers feel; working through key influencers; and silencing critics
with speedy success of early wins, thereby casting vocal naysayers as champions
Continental’s leadership orchestrated a “forgiveness campaign” to
apologize to its unhappy customers. Officers, from the CEO through the
vice presidents, divided complaint letters and started placing calls.
Each officer took a city served by Continental and contacted travel
agents and corporate customers. Saying “sorry” was part of the script,
but the other was outlining the airline’s bold plan to fix problems.
“We heard our share of shouting,” recalls Brenneman, but he argues that
the campaign helped reverse the “doom loop” by convincing many
customers that change was happening. Of course, this communication
onslaught only worked because leadership had results to show, flowing
from its early wins.
According to Kim and Mauborgne, one of Bratton’s specialties was putting managers face to face with the operational problems as
a way of convincing them, in ways that no amount of memos, speeches, and
PowerPoint presentations could, of the change imperative. As head of the NYC
transit police, Bratton had famously battled complacency by requiring all
senior managers to ride the subway to work and meetings, including at night,
and did so himself.
At NYPD, Bratton hired John Miller, an investigative journalist, to
lead his communications efforts, both inside and outside of the force.
And he needed all the help he could get. One key “early win,”
processing small “quality of life” crimes, was nearly scuttled by court
officials who feared these cases would clog the dockets. By allying
with the mayor and running a smart media campaign, Bratton framed the
issue as make or break for NYC’s future, causing judicial leaders’
concerns to appear selfish and petty. The strategy worked.
In both schools and districts, leaders and their teams would need to
analyze the required involvement and likely reaction of all
stakeholders: school and district staff, parents, students, unions, and
community members. At the start, most stakeholder groups would feel
that their power was being reduced as the turnaround leader focused
sharply on early-win goals. Leaders would need to communicate clearly
how success would affect children’s later learning and work prospects.
They would need to find ways for staff to empathize with children
experiencing slow or no change. And they would need to identify vocal
supporters and work with them to rally others to advocate for change.
Most important, the leaders would need to achieve naysayer support or
silence by accomplishing early student-learning gains.
The Turnaround Environment
These six key actions recur in story after story of successful turnarounds. But
don’t turnaround leaders also need a supportive environment? Yes and no. Some
conditions prove to be not that valuable, or even detrimental. Some scholars,
for example, conclude that too much money dooms turnaround efforts, by diluting
leader attention rather than focusing it on early wins.
One environmental condition is critical. Turnaround leaders need a “big
yes,” a clear nod from the top in support of dramatic change, even if
it causes discomfort and political fallout. However, there is no
evidence that the larger organization needs to be highly effective or
in turnaround mode to grant the “big yes” to a unit leader. Indeed,
breaking the norms and rules of the status quo to achieve
support-winning early victories is what successful turnaround leaders
While leaders at both Continental and NYPD had a “big yes” from their
ultimate bosses, they were not handed a clean slate. Instead, they
faced the same tough environmental conditions plaguing failing schools
and districts: tight budgets, deep-seated status quo routines, and
tough opposition from organized employees. They turned around their
Enabling School and District Turnarounds
To enable more widespread, successful turnarounds in education, state and
district leaders need to focus on two critical policy changes. First, states
(particularly governors) need to create much more political will to try
turnarounds at the district level and to retry when some inevitably fail. They
can only do this by developing much more capacity, in-house or through
contractors, to take charge of failing schools when districts don’t act.
Second, states and districts could do much more to fuel the pipeline of
K–12 turnaround leaders. One key step is to open the door to
noneducation leaders with turnaround competencies, induce them to take
the job, and invest to equip them with the education know-how they need
A few states and districts, such as Chicago, the District of Columbia,
and Louisiana, are attempting real turnarounds. Related efforts, such
as New Leaders for New Schools and the University of Virginia’s School
Turnaround Specialist Program, are underway to help more turnaround
leaders succeed. Mass Insight Education has launched a national
campaign to encourage state leaders to play a more active role.
All of these initiatives are promising. And the good news is they don’t
have to start from scratch. From Continental Airlines to NYPD to
countless others, turnarounds have happened with dramatic results.
Turnarounds can happen in education, too.