Five Secrets of Mr. Fixit – the Turnaround Guy

secrets of the fixit guy

A friend once worked in a promising division of a tech firm. The word “promising” is important here. The division had been born out of the company’s R&D department a few years earlier and just wasn’t fulfilling its promise.

One morning after everyone was at work, the company’s “fixer” arrived. The old chief of the division was out and the guy whose business card read, “The SOB from the head office who thinks he knows it all” was in charge. This new manager was a turnaround expert. He took underperforming divisions and within a fairly short period of time, got them back on track.

Once the dust settled, my friend was able to develop a pretty good professional relationship with the fixer. In fact, when he quit to join a startup a couple of years later, the fixer told him that he put a “rehire this guy note” in his personnel file. He learned many important lessons working under the fixer and I want to share some of those – along with some other critical concepts – with you in these five secrets of the turnaround artist, aka. the fixit guy.

1. Establish clarity

After the fixer was on the job for a week or two, he pulled everyone who had any authority together in a meeting and told them what his vision was. As is the case with many startups and struggling small businesses, there is a tendency to go in several directions at the same time.

The successful fixer finds where the greatest realistic potential is, jettisons the rest and focuses the team in the best direction. When my friend reflects on this he adds one more attribute. The fixer he worked with gave his team a lot of freedom to pursue the new goals. He didn’t punish people for failed initiatives as long as they were aligned with his goals. However, anyone who strayed from the goals would get in hot water.

And that leads to the next principle.

2. Some people will have to go

No fixer enjoys firing people, although that is the impression that many observers end up with. By the time a fixer takes over, the handwriting has been on the wall for a long time and frankly, the changes that need to be made aren’t big secrets.

That means that existing managers have been ignoring the signs, or are so entrenched with old thinking that they cannot see what is obvious to fresh eyes. If they have their identities tied up in ways that won’t allow them to change, they need to go. However, fixers also usually find a cadre of individuals who have been eagerly waiting for changes – like the monkeys that attended the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz.”

3. It’s all about the bottom line

George Washington died because his doctor kept bleeding him until finally he bled the nation’s hero to death. When it’s time for Mr. or Ms. Fixer to take the reigns, the bloodletting must stop. Sometimes that’s a difficult message to get across to people working in the heady world of startups. (See the previous point.)

My friend remembers his fixer very forcefully telling a roomful of managers once, “You can’t always control sales, but you should always be able to control your expenses!” This brings us squarely into the realm of operations.

4. Things you do must change

With the message clarified, the right people in place, and an understanding of the economics reached, Fixers then have to make tough decisions regarding operations. It’s time to be ruthless with waste, no matter where it occurs. This can mean making layoffs, curtailing some of the niceties, and taking other cost cutting measures. It will be different for every business.

Some of this will happen when you refocus your strategy on the areas with the greatest realistic potential. However, there is also the temptation to not cut as deeply as you should when you make this kind of pivot. In other words, you can’t always “absorb” people in other areas without jeopardizing the entire venture in the longer term.

5. Lather, rinse, repeat

Fixit guys don’t stray from their marching orders. They stay on point. They continually cycle through the four general areas that I’ve made above. They make sure their message maintains its clarity. They keep their team members pulling in the same direction and that may require personnel changes. They watch the bottom line like hawks and they squeeze out every wasted penny.

My friend also remembers how his fixer once said, “Spend the company’s money as if it was your own!” That was the intense, personal level of stewardship he gave to spending, and he expected the same commitment from everyone he worked with.

Fixers are criticized for being singled minded and sometimes they aren’t “big vision” people. But I think that every small business owner needs to have an “inner fixer” as part of his or her psyche, so try to make these five secrets of the turnaround guy part of your approach to running your company.