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Or at least I’ll take my fair share of the blame. The guy who trained and managed me in my early days was 10 years my senior. “Larry” was 6 ft., 4 in., weighed 240 lb., give or take a bacon double cheeseburger, and was about as charming as a starving grizzly bear. His name has been changed to protect the innocent — me.
He drank his weight in Old Style by early afternoon. But it made him less homicidal, so I didn’t mind.
Now and then I would make a wildly unpopular suggestion — I shouldn’t have to buy his beer because I was only getting paid $4.50 an hour. Larry’s typical response was the bosses were grossly overpaying me. This was usually followed by a reminder that my job was to make his job easier.
The hardest thing for me was this: Larry could never wrap his giant-sized head around the fact that I couldn’t do things as well or as fast as he could. Larry, despite his elevated blood alcohol level, was oddly very good at what he did. Or so it seemed to a 20-year-old kid with 3 1/2 weeks of experience. Yes, weeks.
I was already a tough kid, but he tested my resolve and made me tougher. If I couldn’t slip a drive cleat on two lengths of rectangular duct in five seconds or less, Larry was right in my face saying, “What in the $&@! is so hard about that?” Then he would knock me out of the way and slip on the cleat faster than I could pick myself up off the floor.
My singular goal in life was to shut him up. Because if I did, it would mean I’m getting better. After a couple of years of unrelenting torture and abuse, we were producing at the same pace with similar results. He still drank on the job. I saved mine for after work, doing my best to blot out his disdain for my day’s efforts.
The thing is, I liked the guy. He was charming in his own monstrous way. He made me a better technician and taught me so many things — the tricks of the trade if you will. Not long after we worked together, I was a union tin knocker for Local 73 in Chicago. It was a proud moment for me, and I owe much of my eye for detail and the need for productivity to him. I also owe some of my over-the-top, micromanagement skills to him. Not all, but some.
Being a nostalgic type of guy, I smile when I think back to all the jobs we worked together in my early days. He taught me well. Too well, perhaps.
His management skills were sorely lacking and mostly nonexistent.
Ten years later, mine were no better.
Larry was born in 1951; I was born in 1960. I guess that makes us baby boomers. Not once have I ever heard us described as the greatest generation ever, so cut us some slack. We did the very best we could on what we were taught and how we were managed. That was never a problem until I became a manager of people.
At some misguided moment in 1987, I decided I was just about the most gifted serviceman/installer this industry had ever seen. And when you’re blessed with that kind of talent, the next obvious step is to quit my well-paying, benefits-ridden job, hang up a neon sign and open up my own shop. Right?
But I did it anyway.
Let me run through all the good stuff first. I may have exaggerated my otherworldly technical skills, but I was relatively good at what I did and always had the grey matter entrenched in a technical manual or textbook. I loved to learn. Still do.
I developed a strong, loyal customer base that included light commercial work and residential. I never considered myself a salesman, but I sold more than enough work by sharing references and before-and-after pictures of previous jobs. Integrity and honesty were on my side, too.
We lived in a nice house and our young daughters could pick out as many books from Barnes & Noble as their little, but curious, brains desired. There was never a cap on the books they wanted as long as they read them. Three kids, a golden retriever named Mikey, a minivan I loathed, a tricked-out work van and a brand-spanking-new three-car garage. We even went on vacation every year.
Life was pretty good.
And then, I hired my first employee. It started out as an exciting new part of my business. It was growing, and I needed help. I recruited him from a local supply house. He was about everything you could ask for in a young kid: intelligent, reliable, conscientious and teachable. He showed up for work every day and his effort should have never been in question — but it was. Enough was never enough for me.
I’m sharing this because maybe it will help steer a young man or two in the right direction; it might even change an old tradesman/entrepreneur. I came to terms with this a few months ago when it finally, after three decades or so, became as obvious as a broken coupler and sagging motor mounts on a three-piece Bell & Gossett circulator. This epiphany was so dramatic it even made the same sound as that coupler banging against the housing at 1,725 revolutions per minute.
My business had a problem and that problem was me. It mostly revolved around my inexplicable inability to manage people with any modicum of sustained sanity. This mad method of management cost me dearly in terms of employee turnover.
Here’s a short list of people who worked for me, starting from the beginning: Bill, Pete, Ray, Mark, Dan, Jim, Brian, Scott, Mike, Eric, Michael, Evgeny, Alex, Ralph, Tom, Sammy, Johnny the Bull, Danny, Steve and Tim. It’s like Matt Damon reciting the names of his 13 brothers in “Good Will Hunting.” Geez!
Twenty guys and I’m sure there’s more than a few that I forgot. Among these hostages were my younger brother, my neighbor’s 18-year-old kid, one of my best friends and my son-in-law.
The longest-tenured technician lasted 2 1/2 years. Ouch. It stings a little bit, but I’ve heard that admitting you have a problem is the first step. The turnstile under my neon sign was busier than the local Walmart on Black Friday.
Don’t get me wrong, we had some good times. Good conversations, hearty laughs and light moments. They were often abbreviated good times but ya gotta take what you can get. I paid them well and on time, kept them busy, taught them to be better technicians and installers, gave them a truck to use and provided benefits.
But if you think that’s all it takes to retain good employees — and most of them were good — we need to have a conversation. Let my experience save you from the eventual chest grabber you’re bound to have should you follow my path.
Lessons I’ve learned
The biggest problem I had was expectations. I expected everyone to have the same drive, the same attention to detail, the same yearning for more and more knowledge, and the same immaculately organized and maintained truck — same, same, same. You’d think I was running a cloning business instead of a heating business.
Expectations, they say, are inversely proportional to happiness. I wasn’t happy much of the time, and an unhappy boss can only lead to one thing — unhappy employees.
I’m not suggesting you throw out the company handbook and let havoc reign supreme. I am suggesting you not be the strictly black-and-white guy I was and allow for some grey in the picture. Everyone’s brain and way of thinking and seeing things is different. Hire the right people, continue training them, trust them, allow them to make mistakes and then provide a learning opportunity for them.
Show respect. Always. Even if you must terminate employees, do it respectfully. And if they terminate you, respect their choice.
Be empathetic. Everyone has a life outside of work and employers barely have a glimpse of what that is.
Listen. Your employees’ body language often speaks louder than words. If their actions or words tell you there’s a problem, intervene. Don’t ignore them or you’ll lose them. Talk it through and work it out.
Apologize. If you screw up, man up.
Be patient. I can’t stress this enough.
Give praise every time it's due.
When you must criticize, do it constructively and in private. Being calm probably isn’t going to kill you either, although I wouldn’t know because it was a tactic I rarely tried.
Granted, you should have some strict, unbreakable rules, such as not being under the influence of Old Style beer at 1:25 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon or driving your truck.
If you have a guy like Larry, lose him. Or get him in a substance abuse program as a condition of employment. If you don’t, you could end up in a world of hurt and a living nightmare of litigation.
Stealing is something else no company should abide. The Dude does not abide. I’d explain the reference, but that would make me as lame as the reference itself.
Unexcused absences, being excessively late every single day, using the truck without permission are some other behaviors that can’t be tolerated.
But if you have a guy with great enthusiasm, suits up and shows up every day, gives his best effort, is great with customers and does a good job — back off. Now. Right now. Cut him as much slack as you possibly can with things that simply do not matter.
Forget about choosing your battles wisely. What matters are your choice of words and actions. It’s where the wisdom comes into play. Those are the things that will define you as a leader and manager.
Don’t manage people the way Larry and I did. If you do, it will end badly. Nobody wants to work for that guy.
The job is tough but, as managers, we must be the most professional ones in the room.
The concept is simple. The execution is difficult.