Subscribe to our newsletters & stay updated
Last month, I covered the growing pains involved with transitioning from a one-man-band to a multi-truck operation. It’s impossible to discuss company growth without acknowledging the importance of building a team. An organization’s success or failure often comes down to the quality of the people involved.
I’ve been in the trades long enough to have witnessed the loss of the human element among company leadership. In such situations, people become a product, just another 40 or 50 billable hours. Admittedly, management has no choice but to account for its people in these terms on paper. However, in the shop, in conversation and in real life, people need to know they’re valued and part of a team.
A good manager knows what employees like and dislike, who they work with best, and their strengths and weaknesses. People are not only warm bodies in a van. If management doesn’t actively maintain the human element among the team and pursue relationships with their people, anonymity can be the result. The bigger the company is, the higher the risk of this occurring.
My company is now 11 members strong. We’re not big by any means, but we’re big enough that if I simply buried my head in my work and interacted with the crew as little as possible, I’d begin losing touch with the team.
Not everyone in the company needs to be fast friends, but mutual respect is important. The best way to earn respect is to give it. I try to do this in a number of ways.
We pay our people well; they have good benefits. When we’re all out on the road together, I always pay for lunch. We have BBQ parties at the shop to build camaraderie. I’ll provide an extra paid day of vacation on certain holidays.
For example, on Father’s Day weekend, I put myself in the on-call rotation. After all, some of our team members have young children. I do not, so I’m happy to take a weekend call if that means someone else can stay at home with their child on the holiday.
The way you acknowledge successes and respond to mistakes is important, too. I can’t expect my employees to remain calm and respectful if I don’t do so myself. Praise people for work well done, problems solved, independent thinking, etc. Conversely, there’s nothing worse than kicking someone when they’re down. Every mistake is a learning opportunity.
For example, one of our associates (we’ll call him Jim) wired a pump for 240 volts when it required 460 supply voltage. He turned it on; it ran for a minute, then it began smoking and burned up. He called me, explained the problem and apologized profusely. Jim asked me the next day if I was angry.
I asked if he’d ever do it again. He said no. I responded by saying that the cost of the pump was a lot less than any training could possibly have taught him not to make that mistake. No hard feelings. A mistake can be a very effective teacher.
Being introspective, I should have immediately conveyed over the phone that I wasn’t mad.
We pride ourselves on our transparency, both with customers and each other. Everyone on the team knows our sales numbers.
A whiteboard hangs beside the coffee maker in the office. It keeps track of what’s committed, what’s invoiced and whether we’re over or under our goal for the quarter. The whole crew has a huge amount of pride when that number changes from red to green.
I think it’s also important to show the team that you wouldn’t ask them to do something you wouldn’t do. As the owner, if you came up turning a wrench, you need to spend some time “in the trenches” from time to time with your team. I can tell you from personal experience that you can lose your edge quickly.
When I go out to a site, the customer rarely knows I’m the owner. I meld in with the team, and I don’t overstep my managers. I ask, “What do you need me to do?” If you undermine the authority you’ve given them, why do you have them?
The Right Butt In The Right Seat
Running a business gets a lot easier when you realize how critical it is to have the right people in the right roles.
We learn what people are good at instead of sending them out randomly. Some people excel with controls or mechanical room layout, or maybe they’re extremely good at piping. We ask our associates frequently: are you happy doing what you’re doing, or would you prefer to try something different?
If they have a desire to learn something new, we have a desire to help them do so. Our team attends a variety of manufacturer training events, and we also do in-house training. We believe in skills transfer.
Keeping personalities in mind is important, too. Some people work more effectively, and enjoy their work more, when they’re paired with the right person. As we consider who will be working together, we do our best to consider each team member’s strengths and weaknesses, and pair them accordingly.
Look For Talent
If you’re building a team, you’ll need more people. I always look for talent. Some of the best talent we have didn’t come from the plumbing or HVAC world. One tech worked as a concrete finisher and another hung drywall. They’re mechanically inclined, they know how to use a ruler and they know how to make things straight. More importantly, they care that things are straight. The rest can be taught.
If you go into a gas station and the attendant has a wonderful personality, that person might be good for outward-facing positions on your team. Our business manager came from the catering/hospitality world. This helped her get very good at dealing with different personalities, and she’s fantastic at building relationships. She knows our customers’ kids’ names, dogs’ names, etc. Customers prefer results and relationships. If you can deliver results and build relationships, you’ll be successful.
I don’t shy away from hiring people who came from the trade, but their experience in the trade doesn’t necessarily carry a lot of weight, either.
You never know where you’ll find a great team member, or where work and life will take you or one of your team members. For example, when I worked at IBM, I never thought that one day I’d be writing articles about the heating trade.