How I became a… turnaround CEO
Dean Forbes has become a specialist in transforming the fortunes of struggling businesses. Having shown great resilience in his youth, the ex-footballer has much wisdom to share about bouncebackability
To say that Dean Forbes is no stranger to adversity would be an understatement. The south Londoner spent his youth as a carer for his mother and siblings, experiencing several bouts of homelessness. When discussing his brief spell on the books of Crystal Palace FC, he describes himself as having “failed football”. And he jokes that he must hold the speed record for dropping out of university, having managed a single day in higher education.
Since those unpromising beginnings, he’s become a CEO who has turned around the fortunes of four companies, spearheaded exit deals worth well over $1bn (£820m) and twice featured on the Powerlist, a ranking of the 100 most influential people of African, African-American and Afro-Caribbean heritage in the UK.
Forbes believes that his formative experiences of hardship have helped to make him an effective leader when the going gets tough.
“As a transformational CEO, I’ll be walking into a scenario that’s going badly,” he says. “Maybe the company will have only a short lifespan unless we can revive it. This is where I’ll have a distinct edge. I might have an educational disadvantage, but I do have incredible conditioning to failure and difficult circumstances.”
So how did Forbes get to where he is today? After Crystal Palace let him go, his football agent found him a telesales job and “a degree of pride kicked in shortly after I started”. He discovered that he had a talent for selling, aided by the innate competitive drive that had helped him to become a pro footballer.
“Every situation I found myself in, I wanted to be the best,” Forbes says. “Seven or eight years later, I was running the international arm of Primavera Systems.”
Having become vice-president and general manager of the US software firm’s business outside the Americas at the age of 29, he played a key role in its eventual sale to Oracle for a reported $550m.
He landed his first CEO appointment in 2011 with KDS. The French software company was acquired in 2016 by American Express Global Business Travel in the largest tech deal in the latter’s history at the time. He then worked his magic with CoreHR, which was acquired by The Access Group, before taking the reins at B2B tech company Forterro in February 2021. Just over a year later, he oversaw its sale to Partners Group for €1bn (£860m).
In each case, he arrived at firms that had lost their way to varying degrees and set about putting them back on course. From these experiences, Forbes has come to believe that there’s no need for any business leader, turnaround specialist or not, to have functional knowledge across the board.
“When I started out, I thought that CEOs needed to be balanced in all areas – great at finance, great at product development, great at sales and marketing – but that just isn’t true,” he says, adding that it’s not even necessary to have a background in the company’s industry. “It is helpful to have some sector knowledge, but not critical. This job is more about understanding the ‘anchors’ of the company: what’s preventing the business from elevating itself.”
An effective turnaround CEO needs the ability to identify these anchors and work out the best way to unchain the enterprise from them.
Winning the dressing room
When Forbes was a teenager, his favourite subject at school was English. He thought he might have a future as a marketing copywriter if football didn’t work out as a career.
“I liked coming up with clever ways to explain things. That talent has served me well,” he says, stressing that communication – written and verbal; online and in person – is a crucial skill for any business leader seeking to motivate a workforce that may well be low on confidence.
“You have to be multi-handed at communicating. That is the number-one attribute for a CEO in a pronounced turnaround situation,” he says.
This is because you’re arriving at a time of great uncertainty, so employees are looking to you for reassurance that the business is in safe hands. “You won’t have this feeling of Google-like success. You won’t see a place with great morale and people making tons of money,” Forbes says. “So you must constantly remind everyone why they should keep swinging the bat and celebrate any time they hit a home run.”
What are the other important things that a transformative CEO must bring to a struggling business? For Forbes, it’s “quality, balance and diversity of the team”.
He explains that he will structure a leadership team so that it blends people who’ve been at the firm for some time with people who’ve worked with him before elsewhere. He is also unafraid of changing the line-up, even when things are going well.
“I’ve watched the impact on my teams when we change someone after we’ve just achieved something brilliant,” says Forbes, explaining that it’s a sure-fire way of encouraging each member to keep their eye on the ball. “Ordinary teams never achieve extraordinary things. I’ve always had better teams than I deserve.”
And last, but certainly not least, on the Forbes list of essentials for the transformative CEO is robust planning, particularly when it comes to managing the many risks affecting a firm whose future may be in jeopardy.
“I’m very particular and very detailed in my planning,” he says. “This is not because I expect everything to go according to plan. It’s because I don’t want any latency between things not going according to plan and me considering the implications.”
Turning on a sixpence
Working out how best to approach the first 100 days in post has never been easy for Forbes. Most incoming bosses will normally be able to spend time settling in and taking stock before making any significant choices, but a turnaround CEO must act quickly and decisively, while also considering how much upheaval the organisation can tolerate.
Forbes likens the situation to “having a patient on your operating table who needs three or four organs to be transplanted. On the one hand, the sooner we operate, the sooner the patient moves into recovery. On the other, do this too quickly and the trauma may be too much. It’s the artistry in moving as quickly as possible without causing lasting damage. I lose a lot of sleep over this very hard task.”
As with any leadership role, loneliness can also be a challenge.
“It’s the unforgiving nature with which people view my job,” explains Forbes, whose average working day lasts from 6am to 10pm and largely involves firefighting. Most people believe that the financial rewards of his success should more than compensate for such a gruelling schedule, he says, “but I get tired and have difficult days, just like everyone else.”
A healthy dose of perspective helps Forbes to get through such days. “I’ve been homeless; I’ve been hungry. I’ve been in far worse situations, so the stress doesn’t really register,” he says.
On the good days, the pace – and high stakes – of the job are what motivates him. “I like the fairly immediate gratification you get from a turnaround situation,” he says.
To stretch the metaphor, a day of firefighting means a day of saving people’s livelihoods, if not their lives.
“You are doing good and having an impact regularly. I really enjoy what it does for other people,” Forbes says. “It’s cool to be able to say you’ve been a part of wealth creation for hundreds of people who otherwise might not have found their way through.”
Given that there were nearly 101,000 business closures in the UK in the third quarter of 2021 alone, according to the Office for National Statistics, it’s unlikely that an aspiring turnaround CEO will ever be short of job offers. How does Forbes go about targeting a company that he can be confident of saving from the scrapheap?
For him, it’s a matter of finding firms that still have plenty of vital signs, as there is little virtue in trying to resuscitate those that are beyond redemption.
“If we’d need to change 100% of what’s available to a company to be successful, I wouldn’t like that. If it’s less than 15%, I’ll be able to find a path to success,” he says. “But I won’t need 10 possible routes – I’ll just need the one.”