Fixing and building are similar, but distinctive skills. A good leader needs both.
In business, fixing and building are similar yet distinctive skills. A "fixer" can look at a business and identify what’s wrong, then implement changes to turn it around. A "builder," on the other hand, can start a company from scratch, providing a strong foundation for growth.
Not every leader is capable of both, but in my experience, it certainly helps.
Parents and young adults who have seen the kids’ show “Bob the Builder” over the course of its 20-year tenure may be familiar with the animated building contractor’s claim to fame. “Can we fix it?” the theme song chimes, followed by a chorus of “yes we can!” The show revolves around Bob and his crew performing renovations, construction and repairs as needed, providing fun and instructional episodes for kids.
Contractors like Bob, whether fictional or real, can fix and build. When entrepreneurs use their fixing skills to build and vice versa, they are better equipped to handle some of the challenges that come with leadership in all stages.
As someone who has transitioned from a fixer into a builder, I should know. Toward the beginning of my career, I earned a reputation for coming into broken businesses — in this case, nursing homes — and turning them around. I would look at their financial and clinical situations and implement new operations and procedures to improve them for staff and patients alike. When I left these buildings, they were running smoothly and yielding positive surveys, a noteworthy transformation.
Now I understand that something doesn’t need to be broken first in order to be made right. Whether you enter at the ground floor or the roof, a talent for fixing can strengthen the entire structure and make for a better company.
The intersection of these skills, I’ve found, is at the heart of transformational leadership. Here’s how fixing a business can inform building one, and vice versa.
The same thing, but backwards
Few things are built in a day, but most things are decided in one. Neither Rome nor careers or reputations manifest without years of work first. I didn’t transition from fixing to building in a day either, but the decision to do so was far quicker.
In 2012, I was approached by a headhunter who had heard of my track record in the healthcare industry. “You have a reputation for fixing things,” he said. “Can you create things too?”
I responded with something along the lines of, “Why not? After all, it’s the same thing, but backwards.”
That was just a guess, but in hindsight I think I hit the metaphorical nail on the head. When I started at what is now The Allure Group, I was one of just several employees including the CEO, Joel Landau. We had one home at the time, but Joel had great ideas about the model they wanted to create. They needed an operations person to start the company and turn it into something bigger, which is where I agreed to come in.
It was totally new, but the experience was, as I initially surmised, like working backwards. Instead of fixing something by finding mistakes in the existing blueprint, I was able to co-write the blueprint to incorporate the very same strategies and processes I’d use to turn other establishments around.
Long story short, knowing how to fix businesses made me a better builder and leader capable of weaving a moral compass into our model from the start. I think this is true for everyone, whether you work in operations or accounting, or as a CEO. A leader that has learned from their mistakes (or those of others) has the perspective needed to avoid common pitfalls, or a faulty foundation.
Building through fixing
Not all leaders start out as fixers; in fact, it’s more of an untraditional career path for some executives, namely entrepreneurs. MBAs often demonstrate a “planning mindset” that, while not harmful, plans to achieve success from the onset without experimenting along the way. As it turns out, founders who are willing to make and fix mistakes through experimentation will be better equipped to solve "unknown problems" of the future.
CEOs are often brought into ailing companies not to build, but to fix. Take Ford’s former-CEO Alan Mulally, who came to the company in bankruptcy and left it the best in the business, or Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz who redefined the brand “experience” that makes the company so special. Both built out existing companies by identifying and solving problems.
Some of the best leaders accomplish more by fixing than building — in fact, they are likely sought after for their ability to implement trepairs as stepping stones to growth. If we continue to fetishize the idea that leaders only create, putting entrepreneurship above other important skills like pivoting or rebranding, we fail to fully empower and equip leaders of the future. Where’s the joy — or purpose — in building something anyway if you aren’t able to fix it when it breaks?
Can we fix it?
As a fixer-turned-creator, I build things all the time, admire what I’ve built and can mend what breaks when mistakes happen. My background helps, but any builder can adopt a fixer’s mindset, just as any fixer can go forth and create.
To all of the career "fixers" out there, I implore that you give yourself credit for the creativity the job demands every single day. Know that it can be applied elsewhere if you want to take what you know and get in at the ground floor of another venture. Want to build something new? Find a business partner that excites and compliments your skills, then reverse-fix to plan, experiment and scale your model.
As for self-proclaimed business “builders,” most good ones already know that that fixing is just as important as creating, and that the two skills feed each other constantly when you’re in a position of authority. Without making both priorities, a leader is like Bob without a toolbox: unable to do much but stack wood.