5 things I’ve learned in turning around a small business inside a large organisation

by | Dec 5, 2018 | Change, Small Business

As I wrote previously, two years ago, I was given a system to “see what you can do with it”.  I don’t think anyone had any idea how bad the situation was.  Every day for what seemed like 3 months, I seemed to uncover more and more surprises, none of them good.  However, two years on, we’ve tripled revenue helping us to go from losing hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to making a small surplus.  There still is an occasional surprise from history that is uncovered, but thankfully that is increasingly rare.  Now we face different challenges, which might even be harder than the first set, but that is for another day.  Below are five of the things I’ve learned through the process:

1. People are the key, but some won’t like you

Your mere introduction and existence will threaten people and make others feel nervous.  You disturb the existing pecking order and people don’t like that.  Some will immediately push back against you, while others will try to befriend you either to determine how to work with you or in an attempt to re-establish ‘the way things were’.

In my situation, most of the team were not used to being held accountable for their actions and performance; they were not used to being questioned or having agreed deadlines and processes followed up on.  They felt their freedom was being taken away, which it was, and that I should blindly trust them.  Running regular deficits was the norm, so I didn’t sense blind trust had been earned.  The dislike for being held accountable was so great, some of the team tried to rally the entire team and other stakeholders against me in a type of ‘coup’, not once but at least twice.  Not a nice experience, but certainly a learning experience.

However, the success so far of the turnaround has been the people part of our team, their passion, determination, brilliance, and work.  Even the ones who left made lots of positive contributions before leaving.  I likely did not celebrate enough as I helped put out fires, but everyone contributed.

2. Be Friend your legal and finance teams

Unravelling finances and legal ping pong are bound to be part of turning around any business and certainly one within a large bureaucracy.  I had a fairly good understanding of accounting basics, account codes, and what is and isn’t possible within different legal structures, but having a dynamic, helpful finance team to work with has been invaluable – from tracing historical transactions & decisions, to helping put in systems and procedures.  I know I have given them headaches and we’ve had disagreements but having a good relationship and mutual respect has seen us through this.

Similarly, having a good working relationship with our legal team has been invaluable.  While I’ve had one point person to work with, the ‘team’ has been critical given the number of different issues we’ve had to sort through.  As many of our customers are large NGOs, UN agencies, and corporates legal ping pong occurs with most signings; having a supportive legal team on your side makes this painful process slightly more bearable.

3. Rarely is everything broken

If everything is broken, there is no hope of a turnaround, however this is rarely the case.  There usually are many things that are working, people to work with, and seeds of change.  My job was to find those people and things and give them space to grow.  Sometimes I needed to change what people were working on and connect them with new ideas and seeds of things that were working, but that is the whole point of a turnaround.

4. Have a supportive manager

If you can choose your manager, choose a supportive one, otherwise make the one you have supportive.  I am fortunate to have a super supportive manager; without her the turnaround would never have happened.  We certainly don’t always agree, but we always respect each other and debate.  She has helped open doors, defended me while also providing me space and cover to ‘get on with the job’.   She has also listened to me rant a lot; but did not let me stay there; she pushed me to move on.

Neither one of us claimed to be certain about the future, about whether things were actually going to get better, but we were able to be ok with uncertainty and try things.  One of things I’m most grateful for has been her willingness to hold the need for ‘success’ lightly, while doing everything she could to help bring about success.

5. Working inside big organisations is both infuriating and helpful

A 60 year old, 40,000 person organisation with annual revenues of $2-3 billion comes with its fair share of bureaucracy, its rigid processes, its culture, it’s ‘this is the way we do things’.  A lot of this is unhelpful for trying to run a small business within the same structure, having to use the same HR processes, procurement processes, etc.; it is rather far from the stereotypical start-up culture.  It is rare that a day goes past without being frustrated with it.

However, I would be remiss not to acknowledge it comes with benefits too.  There are some unbelievably smart, incredible people in the big organisation, which we have access to (or at least easier access to).  We can use its brand to open doors which would be slammed in our faces if we were a separate legal entity.


There you have some of my learning.  Overall, I have learned many more things and often wished I would have trusted my gut more, making tough choices earlier, and focusing better.  The next phase is already bringing new challenges and new learning.


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