Industry, economic shifts call for 'fixers'

As IT sector matures and customer demands change, more technology companies seek 'professional fixers', Caucasian or Asian, to transform the business.
Written by Vivian Yeo, Contributor

As the IT industry continues to mature and customer demands shift more rapidly than before, more technology companies are tapping on "professional fixers" to reverse fortunes or gain a competitive edge.

One such company is Sony. The struggling electronics company announced last month it has hired a longtime IBM executive as chief transformation officer.

Experts say the downturn and changing market conditions, are driving such appointments. Roger Olofsson, associate director of IT at recruitment consultancy Robert Walters, told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview that as the IT industry matures, customers seek "more service for dollars they pay", forcing vendors to become less of a product business and more of a "solutions" company.

"As they do that, the mindsets in these technology organizations and the way they do business have to change completely. It's very different if you're producing or selling a box…compared to if you're going to provide a solution to the customer," he said. "There's going to be a lot of difficult decisions to be made, that might not always be that easy for existing management to make because they have a lot of vested interests in the organization. If a new person comes in, [he or she] can look at it [from a] fresh [perspective].

Yeo Gek Cheng, IT & telecommunications practice director at Hudson Singapore, said the current economic climate has brought about "an interesting demand and trend for executives strong in business transformation", a trend that may not hold true in better times.

"Many companies are forward looking and are seeing the opportunity to 'fix' the business to ensure it is well set-up and better prepared when things improve," she explained in an e-mail interview. "This was not possible during the good times when the focus was charging ahead and racking in revenue and market share via expansion plans or M&A (merger and acquisition) initiatives."

According to Yeo, "professional fixers" are senior-level executives with "strategic competencies and intellectual horsepower" and have managed "large, complex businesses across functions and geographies". They typically have a wealth of experience that includes leading organizations through significant growth or turnaround phases.

"These candidates are also hands-on in ensuring the execution of such strategic initiatives translates into real time action and plans that are planned, timed and implemented with precision and finesse," she noted.

Olofsson said these executives, besides having experience and "battle scars", need to also have decisive personalities and "plenty" of energy and drive. "A consulting background is not necessarily needed but we see that quite often being part of the makeup of people who've been successful," he added.

Most "fixers" are not typically given a lot of time to prove themselves, admitted Olofsson, although a reasonable timeframe is two years. Executives also typically have to, within the first six months, show significant deliverables and evidence of change, as well as "obtain the buy-in that you're going in the right direction".

Caucasian or Asian?
While notable cases of leadership change or high-profile executives brought in to turn an organization around have been executives from Western countries, there are exceptions.

Microsoft, for instance, hired former Yahoo executive Qi Lu--a Chinese native--to lead the software giant's charge against rival Google.

A decade earlier, that was hardly the case as the pool of local senior-level management in technology companies was limited, said Olofsson. However, things have "changed drastically" over the last 10 years--there are "lots more" strong local and Asian talent that are "very well equipped" to go into an organization and figure out what needs to be changed and how to go about doing it.

Hudson's Yeo concurred, saying it "boils down to business experience and relevance to the sectors or functions involved". Companies in Singapore, for example, tap on an "international pool of candidates" that includes both expatriates and locals.

"We have seen both Western executives and Asian 'high flyers' in such roles with clearly the level of competencies and skills required to be successful in such a role," she said. "Whether they are local or expatriate is irrelevant, what is relevant is what they can bring to the table."

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