If You Build It, They Will Come (and other lies about business from Kevin Costner)


Oh sure, mow down a cornfield, build a baseball diamond, and magically superstars will appear, right? So, you started a business. You set out your shingle. You have a cool logo and your hats are better than any of your competitors. Yet, you have the same struggles as all those other losers that you swore you could dominate if you ever had the chance to go out on your own. Well, the field is built, where are the superstars?

How many owners are asking, “Why can’t we find good people?” We all have to take an honest look at how we are perceived as an industry. Then you have to dig even deeper to face how you are perceived as a company in your local market. For many years, property restoration wasn’t even a profession that anyone really knew about. Twenty years ago, I knew what construction and carpet cleaning were, but I had no idea what mold remediation, water damage mitigation, or property restoration were.

To some degree, this has changed, but in the wider lens of the skilled trades, all organizations are having difficulty attracting and retaining employees. There are outliers, and it will do you good to research similar companies in similar markets that have a good reputation. Tammy Birklid of Merit Construction in Tacoma, Washington, shared on our series for The DYOJO Podcast, Benchmarks of Growth, how their company set out to be “an employer of choice.” Have you considered this? What would it look like to build a company where people were coming to you looking for a job, not just because they needed one, but because they heard your organization is such a great place to work. You may be tempted to think, that must mean the company has no standards or doesn’t discipline its team members. Listen to Tammy talk, you can tell this isn’t the case.

Authors Tony Canas and Carly Burnham share, in their book Insuring Tomorrow, that their research on millennials shows that they actually want the opposite, they want more feedback. Proving what many of us have known for years, that waiting for an annual review is an outdated practice. As we discussed in our inaugural C & R Magazine article under the new ownership of our friend Michelle Blevins, STOP playing the blame game and START owning the issue. Continue to clarify what the vision and purpose of your company are. Rather than chasing your tail, another essential question is asking who your ideal client is. As you develop clarity around these items, adapt how you approach your messaging and process to be in alignment with these objectives.

Are we spending too much energy on the wrong people?

As we continue to develop our mindset and habits for improving our ability to recruit, hire, and especially retain good talent, we must move beyond the blame game to developing creative solutions to our issues. Jack Welch, famed leader of General Electric (GE) in their 1990’s heyday, had a paradigm for focusing your people energy as a leader. Jack believed in candor, saying that the best thing you can do for an employee is to tell them where they stand and how they can improve. “Failing to differentiate among employees — and holding on to bottom-tier performers — is actually the cruelest form of management there is.” Jack believed in 20-70-10:

  • 20% of your employees are top performers, “You should take the top 20 percent of your employees and make them feel loved.” Focus your retention energies and resources on keeping these top performers.

  • 70% of your employees are middle performers, “Take the middle 70 percent and tell them what they need to do to get into the top 20 percent.” These are the ones that you need to coach and determine whether they can progress.

  • 10% of your employees are low performers that you need to allow to move out of the organization.

While you would not be alone if you do not agree with this approach, have you ever stopped to analyze how much time you spend working on issues with your lowest performers? Being clearer with your expectations is an exercise that is beneficial to owners, managers, and team members alike. How much time do you spend in self-inflicted misery wrestling with clients that you should have fired before the job started and lackluster people you should never have hired? Too often a lack of clarity is at the root of a lack of consistency in production and performance. Before you can make progress, you must identify roles and responsibilities, with key performance indicators, and regular goals.

Programs like Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) as outlined in Traction by Gino Wickman have helped many leadership teams to get a better handle on this process. Take an issue, discuss it with your team, and experiment with solutions. When you take a blanket approach to these problems, you will ostracize high performers if you treat them like the bottom ten percent. While the rules should apply to all from top-to-bottom, if you are having an issue with a specific person, or group of persons, it is better to address them directly than to steal productivity from others by dragging them into a meeting that doesn’t apply to them.

We train to be Doctors of Disaster, yet we often fail to bring this same scientific approach to our people skills, leadership development, and cultural improvement. Lex Sisney, our guest for The DYOJO Podcast episode 22, has a wonderful book and system he called Organizational Physics. If you have a scientific mind, this resource will help you apply these principles to the common and repetitive issues in business. Being candid with your leadership team, using data to help you be objective, in reviewing whether you are clear in your goals and consistent in your training as well as your development process.

You cannot, or should not, hold your team to a higher standard than what you or your leadership team are accountable to. When the expectations of the organization are out of balance with the norms of the culture, there is no alignment and you will struggle to achieve. This should not be confused with providing high performers with freedom based upon performance. For example, an employee who handles their business and delivers on their responsibilities should be afforded the freedom to control their schedule, whereas someone who is just starting out or is on a performance plan should be restricted in their ability to self-direct until they prove themselves. This is not disparate treatment, rather it is the goal of building a culture of performance.

What do you do if you aren’t the boss?

If you are a mid-level manager, you may be a part of an organization that does not place the same value that you do in being candid and taking care of your team. I can say that this has been my experience, to varying degrees, in many companies that I have worked with. While I do not advocate for breaking the rules, there are many things that you can do below the radar that will help you to attract and keep the high performers on your team. For example, I was in an organization where it became very apparent early on, who the two favored employees were of the manager.

From a positive standpoint, these three had worked together when the manager was in a similar role to mine in mid-level management, so there was some loyalty at the root of the favor (which is a good thing). Yet, the degree of favor affected the equal distribution of work, especially when it came to going on the road for catastrophic response (CAT duty). Technicians know what I am talking about, when certain employees can get out of being on-call or on the road but others are scalded for any request for time off, there is a disparity that should not exist. I found a diamond in the rough, who through various forms of proving that they could be faithful with little, was very capable of being faithful with much more (progressive leadership). As we worked through the process, I looked for as many opportunities that I could create to empower this person to prove their ability and build their confidence.

In the movie Field of Dreams, Dr. Archibald Graham was only able to play one inning in the major leagues. He shares this quote, which fans of The Office will recognize is similar to what Andy Bernard shares in the series finale. “You know, we just don’t recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they’re happening. Back then I thought, well, there’ll be other days. I didn’t realize that was the only day.” I was able to seize upon opportunities to grow within the organization and that meant I was able to create opportunities for others.

Some of my team members didn’t want to grow, they were comfortable sticking with what they knew. I remember asking one person, someone who was capable of taking on a greater leadership role but didn’t want the responsibility, “Are you going to regret not taking this position when we bring someone else in to fill it?” They said they wouldn’t and yet it was clear that they did. Yet, they didn’t want to step up even though I had shown them they were able.

So many people talk about “what if” and yet are too fearful to seize upon or make their own opportunities. My next book, So, You Want To Be A Project Manager? Is aimed at helping aspiring restoration professional to develop the right mindset and habits to advance. When I became an estimator, after a few years of both building my own book of business and proving that I was capable of doing what I had done for several years prior, there was a need for a project manager (slash assistant manager) for our division. At first, I was unable to offer a formal position, but I made a promise that I would do everything in my power to put this person into that role as soon as I was able.

Interestingly, the role of project manager had about a year and a half shelf life in our company. I believe part of that was a misalignment of values, for example hiring former contractors who had high technical skills but low people skills for a role that is primarily customer service. The other part was being aligned with estimators who did not set them up for success both with the communication of scope as well as the sharing in the spoils (commissions). To the latter, I will share an example in the hopes that it will help others recognize where they can better support their team members.

Play dumb games, win dumb prizes

On one occasion, my project manager was assisting another estimator with a large commercial loss at a local university. In our organization, the estimator received the majority of the available commission and a project manager received a smaller portion of the same. The project had to meet certain criteria of profitability and being paid on time. What was interesting about this estimator is that they constantly utilized the manager to assist them with a majority of their responsibilities on these larger losses. This was up-to and-including completing all of their moisture documentation as well as dealing with the third-party consultants.

Yet, when it came time for them to share the commission with the project manager, they excluded them without even notifying their team members face-to-face. We found out in the production meeting following when the check had been received. Magically the project manager’s name was no longer listed in that role and the estimator had put themselves as performing both roles. My project manager didn’t want to confront the issue so I did. The estimator stated they performed the majority of the work and the project manager wasn’t onsite as much as they were.

I called them out on their BS stating that this project manager performed the same oversight and attention to this project as they did on all of my projects. Furthermore, I stated, on some of my projects I do the majority of the writing and running, on others my project manager takes on both roles. As such, we share everything; we succeed as a team and we share the pittance of a commission evenly on every project. “Perhaps this is why you can’t keep a project manager, you treat them like crap with these petty games!” So you get a few hundred dollars (even a thousand), is it worth burning bridges?

If you live your life, like Kevin Costner’s character in Field of Dreams, only asking, “What’s in it for me?” You are going to have a lonely and troublesome existence…or you will be wildly successful because history rewards the narcissists (but the former still applies). As an industry, many organizations have the perception of making commissions harder and harder to qualify for. When you mess with people’s livelihood, word gets around and it impacts our ability as a whole to attract good talent who don’t want to play games when it comes to getting paid for the work that they do.

As an office in a local market, it doesn’t matter how big the market is, when it comes to your industry it is a small network and word gets around. If your organization doesn’t treat people well or you have people in a position of leadership with a negative reputation, you will struggle to recruit and retain good talent. There are too many options in the current market to play stupid games with good people. Having some turnover at the entry-level positions is to be expected, but to have high-performers and/or managers leave on a consistent basis is not a sign of health.

As an individual, you understand that your clients and your employees typically don’t work for or with the organization, whatever logo you happen to be wearing, they work for and with you. Your reputation is critical and so you, regardless of who you work for, are responsible to build and maintain your credibility. You must do the right thing for your clients and treat your people at least as well as you would want to be treated.

If you want the best clients, you need the best people

Our prior article on recruiting, hiring, and retaining good talent encouraged owners and managers to stop playing the blame game and to more clearly define their ideal client. If you want to pursue the best clients, you will need to have the best people. If you are unhappy with the clients you have, there may be a direct correlation to the quality of the team you have recruited, hired, and retained. This does not mean that you are hunting for unicorns or ninjas (or whatever current moniker people are using). Marion Wade, the founder of ServiceMaster, put it this way, “Don’t expect to build a super company with super people. You must build a great company with ordinary people.” As an owner and a manager, you can solve many of your issues by being more intentional with your recruiting process. Be clearer about what you want and use those metrics to guide how and who you hire.

I can hear all of the objections, “NO ONE is applying right now.” Understood. So, what are you going to do differently? Also, let that be all the more encouragement to invest in the people you have. Double down on caring for your top ten percent and invest in training your middle seventy percent to elevate their engagement and performance. Create opportunities for team members to thrive in their area of expertise rather than pigeonhole them to promote into an area of incompetence (Peter Principle). Stop the blame game, it will get you nowhere. Stop the petty games, they will erode what goodwill you have with your existing team, who also are your best source for attracting new talent. If your team members are not recommending new hires, you may want to start there; why?

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Jon Isaacson

Jon Isaacson, The Intentional Restorer, is a general contractor based in Tacoma, Washington. He is the author of several moderately selling books and the host of the info-taining DYOJO Podcast. Content from The DYOJO aims to help contractors shorten their DANG learning curve.

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