Congratulations, this Mess is Yours to Fix!

At some point in your management career, you’re likely to be placed in a situation where your charter is to fix what’s not working.

Whether it’s poor sales, decreasing customer satisfaction or declining performance indicators, the reasons vary, but the challenge remains the same—figure out what’s wrong and fix it.

An invitation to step in and turn a team or function around is a significant vote of confidence in your abilities and a potential career enhancement opportunity. Of course, first, you’ve got to get it right. Here are some hard-won tips on navigating and succeeding when you’re the management fixer.

7 Hard-Won Lessons for Management Fixers

1. Numbers are Great Except for What They Don’t Tell You

I once observed a consultant turned senior manager who was hired to turn around a struggling unit. He followed his instinct based on his training to study the data. For weeks, he was seen or heard from only when he had questions about various reports or processes. While he was examining the data, morale continued to decline, a few key members defected to different departments, and the performance indicators tracked to new lows.

Unfortunately, when stepping into a situation as a management fixer, numbers mostly do a stellar job of highlighting the outcome a series of prior decisions. They’re like reading the Monday morning sports section of your newspaper and scanning the scores and expecting to know what choices to make to improve the outcome next week. You have no clue because you have no context for the work that led to producing those numbers.

If you’re the new manager tasked with “fixing” the situation, the numbers offer clues, but it’s up to you to dig deeper in search of causes and the right corresponding moves. It’s also imperative for you to sidestep some of the more common traps of managers charged with fixing performance situations.

2. Understand the Mindset of the People You Need to Help You

Every person in your newly inherited group is thinking the same thing. WTHDTMFM?! Roughly translated: “What the heck does this mean for me?” They’re in defend mode, and your mission is to help them suppress the amygdala hijack and get them back to discovery mode. Move carefully early in the process to take the fear out of the equation by treating people with respect, valuing their perspectives, and gaining their involvement in identifying and strengthening group performance.

3. Move Quickly to Engage and Involve

One of the quickest ways to begin pushing fear out of the working environment is to get people focused on the work of strengthening performance. In many cases where performance and morale are lagging or declining, group members have some good ideas on causes and potential cures. Yes, you’re the smart person they put in charge to fix the situation, but this doesn’t mean you have to come up with all of the ideas. Your job is more about freeing and stimulating creativity and action than it is directing and dictating.

Effective management fixers understand the need to tap into the ideas and experiences of group members immediately. They also understand that working with people is the only way to evaluate performance and potential effectively. The faster you engage and involve, the sooner your group members move from defense to offense.

I use a technique I reference as the 3W’s to start the process. I meet with everyone individually and ask three questions:

  • What’s working?
  • What’s not?
  • What do you need me to do to help you succeed?

I roll up the key themes I hear during these sessions and share them back with the group for prioritizing and action plan development. And then I support them as they pursue implementing their improvement ideas. It’s incredible to watch as people begin to believe that someone values their perspectives and is actively encouraging them to fulfill their ideas.

4. Resist the Urge to Prescribe Before You Diagnose

Assumptions are fatal to managers charged with fixing performance challenges. Your assumptions are a function of your own experiences and predispositions, and not based on facts for the situation in front of you.

It’s common to see managers inserted into “problem” situations make a series of quick, sweeping changes. Their intent is to assert their agenda and establish a power position. This misguided effort falls short when without a proper diagnosis, they begin throwing cures at undetermined problems hoping for performance improvement. While even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in a while, your assumptions most often lead to flail and fail scenarios.

Not every sales problem is because of poor representatives or a lousy sales manager, and declining performance indicators don’t necessarily mean incompetent team members. There’s typically systemic problems that merit fixing before assessing whether people or management changes are required. Effective fixers take the time to work with group members in pursuit of uncovering the root causes of problems.

5. It’s the People, Stupid! Just Not All of the People

It’s reasonable to expect you will need to make some personnel changes as you gain insights into abilities and potential. The problem is, you don’t know which people you need and which people need to go until you take the time to observe, engage, and assess performance and potential.

Follow the engage and involve guidance above and observe to see who talks a good game and who actually delivers in the game. There’s no substitute for your active, hands-on involvement across the spectrum of situations to find the quiet stars and weed out the noisy 70-percenters—the individuals who never quite finish what they say they were going to do.

6. Transparency is a Full-Time Job

Everyone around you understands you will have to make decisions on people, projects, and processes. They get that. Your job is to arm people with context for your changes and choices. In times of change, double your efforts to communicate with your group members.

7. Coach More than You Tell

While the common admonition is to listen more and talk less—always good advice, I’ve found through repeated experiences that teaching—in the form of coaching—is a power tool for strengthening performance in troubled departments and firms.

In many instances, team members haven’t had formal coaching on diagnosing problems, identifying options and making decisions. For example, if the prior manager was a micromanager, you need to coach people on taking the initiative. While your assumptions might have suggested you had the wrong people, the reality of the situation is that the people have been trained to respond and not to assert initiative.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

While your charter says fix, in reality, you’re there to serve others capable of getting it right. Keep your head straight on this point, or you risk letting your hubris run and ruin the show.

Art's Signature