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Are Your Foremen Managers or Leaders?

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Business Advice

Brian* was an employee who taught me a lesson I’ll never forget.

I hired Brian after about 3 or 4 years in business. He was there was every morning – first one to arrive at the yard. He’d be waiting at our gate in his car – finishing his coffee. As I opened the gates, he always had a work-related question. His curiosity was inspiring.

Brian was always asking questions. There were a few times where I had to reassure his foreman that Brian wasn’t challenging him – he was ambitious and looking to learn and move up.  “We will always find room for another you.” I explained to Brian’s foreman.  “Teach him what you know – Brian’s a good student.”

In just his second year, we put Brian in charge of his own jobs. I started him with a few simple jobs, then gradually put bigger, and more complex projects on his plate. Brian took on each one with the same enthusiasm. Brian had learned to read plans very well, and I knew he was studying them at home, because he was always at the gate every morning with a couple of questions or clarifications for me. I knew I had a superstar-employee in the making.

Stopping in at any of Brian’s sites, you would find one of the hardest working crews in the industry. Brian was always covered in dirt, and jumping in and out of his work to follow in behind his guys to check and correct theirs. If a job was behind, Brian was always in there – digging that much harder and faster, carrying that much more, and staying that much later. He led by example. Many times, you’d find Brian working at the worst task– and still out-working the rest of his crew.

We’d see Brian at the end of the day and couldn’t help but smile. His shirt was always soaked, often ripped, and his forever-dirty hat made him look like he spent the day working underground. But he’d still be going – even at the yard he’d jumping on one of his guys for not putting away their tools correctly, or leaving a mess in a shop. Brian was always hustling.

It was great while it lasted, but within 6 months, we noticed a change in Brian. He wasn’t first to the gate in the AM. His questions dropped off. I assumed his experience was taking over, but looking back – this was a clue. I should have seen the writing on the wall.

He still worked hard, but his attitude started to sour. He was often angry about something, or someone. Brian complained about the guys in his crew and who we hired for him. They were too lazy, too stupid, or too slow. Brian burned through his share of people – each week it seemed he chased another guy out, or they’d quit before Brian had the chance.

Brian grew short-tempered and impatient. He barked orders at his crew. Asking Brian a question was pointless. His answers were brief – even rude.  He’d cut you off before you finished your question, and most of the time he’d just push his way in and do the work for you –no help, no instruction, or no explanation. He’d shoot you a look before he went back to his work and everyone would carry on in silence.

While his first projects went well, Brian’s recent projects weren’t nearly as successful. While we were pushing his limits – testing his capabilities with bigger, more complicated work, the results weren’t living up to Brian’s potential. Brian was constantly calling the office for materials that were needed that minute. Every order was a rush, and often made extra trips just for his order.  He’d be out of materials or fuel, and be frantically calling someone to bring him more. He drove the other crews crazy, showing up in the morning and expecting that specific equipment and tools were available for him – although he hadn’t checked with anyone to make sure they weren’t needed elsewhere. He’d leave parts of jobs where he’d have questions, but forget to ask for the information until the very minute he needed it.

First his paperwork was a few days late, then started going missing entirely. One day I walked in to the shop to find him with a stack of blank Crew Daily reports, back-dating them two weeks prior.

I had to call him out. Crew Dailys are filled out daily, not 2 weeks later. That led to a bigger conversation. We discussed Brian’s planning – or lack of it.  His last minute reactions weren’t just affecting his jobs. The office people were interrupted, other crews who had planned work were getting bumped to accommodate his urgent requests. His crews’ constant turnover was putting extra time into hiring and dismissals.

Although he nodded in agreement during our discussion, it didn’t help Brian. Throughout our entire conversation, he had this look of helplessness on his face. He recognized the problems, but in his mind, he didn’t believe he could fix any of it.  He was working as hard as he could and it wasn’t working. In his mind, he was a failure.

A few months later, Brian left my company. I hadn’t given up on him – since I’d gone through the same problems myself! Brian was still new, and learning how to run a job, but it was too late – he’d had enough. He was broken. When you work as hard as Brian worked and you still feel overwhelmed and underachieving, you lose your will. I wish things had gone differently, but I didn’t try too hard to convince him otherwise.  He’d made up his mind, and this was going to be a lesson for both of us.

Did I expect too much of Brian? Did I put too much on his plate? I didn’t force Brian to work as hard as he did – he willingly worked hard – but was I responsible for his burnout? How could I make sure the next Brian didn’t end up the same?

I looked at Jeff*. Jeff’s been a foreman with our company since before Brian’s time.  Jeff is a true superstar.  His work is planned and his times are so consistent.  His sites were neat and organized. Every day at 12:45, we received an email about what Jeff needed the next day and a preview of the big items needed for the days thereafter. Staff like Jeff make running my business enjoyable.

If you drove by Jeff’s site, everyone was busy, but there was a nice, even pace to their work.  When their truck rolled up to site in the morning, you watched as a plan sprung into action. Nobody spoke a word, but his lead hand went right to the equipment for inspections and greasing. The laborers were unloading tools off the trailer and setting up work areas where tools were grouped by task. Jeff stands back, his head buried in the design, and then his notebook. Then, as if they were guided by the beat of some silent drum, they finished their prep and came back together for an AM huddle.  Jeff would go through the design and his notes.  Within 3 minutes they parted again, each one with a deliberate mission.  Drop by the next day, you’d see the very same thing.

Sure, everything didn’t go exactly as planned, but when Jeff’s crew members came to him with a problem, Jeff barely moved.  Often times he wouldn’t even look up from his work. He always answered a question with a question.  But it was effective.  You could watch as the employee stood back, furrowed their brow, and walk away slowly with their head down. They’d take a few seconds, sometimes minutes, then suddenly, their pace would quicken and they’d get to work. You knew exactly when they figured out the answer for themselves.

Jeff’s crew didn’t have a lot of turnover. He didn’t put up with any slackers, but he didn’t seem to have the same problems with them either. Most of the guys wanted to work for Jeff. It wasn’t his personality – he wasn’t social, he rarely said much, but Jeff’s crew had a steady pace and order to his work. They were productive, without chaos.

Two guys who both worked in my company, with the same office, for the same type of customers, doing the same type of work. What was it about Jeff that made him succeed where Brian couldn’t?

Brian was a potential superstar, but he didn’t know how to be a leader, and, unfortunately, at that time I didn’t believe it was important enough for my company to invest in helping him to help him become one. This was, and continues to be, one of the best lessons I’ve learned in my business. If I was going to build a successful business, I needed more Jeffs, but hoping to hire a company of Jeffs was going to take a lifetime. I needed to develop them. And to turn my Brians into Jeffs, I needed to teach my foremen 5 skills that are critical to our collective success:

  1. Time Management – Brian was always getting things done. He was in the dirt, behind the wheelbarrow, or carrying the load of lumber. As long as Brian was the hardest working staff member, he thought he must be doing good work, and the results would follow. Jeff spent less time working and more time planning. He set aside blocks of time each day – in the morning, at lunch, and before the end of day to review the plans, review the work to date, identify required resources or information, and set and communicate goals to his crew. Jeff “works” less, but his planning delivers better results.
  2. Problem Solving – Brian jumped in to solve problems for his staff. Jeff does not solve peoples problems. He asks employees questions that put their own question ack on their lap.  If he didn’t know the best solution, he’d often ask. “Well what you would you do if you were in my shoes?” or “What would happen if we did it this way?”. The employee is left to come up with the solution, and because they were the ones who ultimately answered the question, they believed in and carried out the solution.
  3. Discipline – Brian was a drill sergeant. He barked orders, and dressed down anyone who stepped out of line.  Jeff rarely showed any emotion. When they ran into a problem, Jeff created a system for his crew that would prevent the problem from ever happening again. Brian did not get results because he merely treated symptoms of the problem – his people. His people kept changing, but his problems stayed the same. Jeff’s systems cured the disease. His daily procedures for equipment care, AM crew meetings, work area prep and tool setup, daily cleanup, and material and equipment planning delivered predictable, consistent results, with less problem.  With less problems to deal with, Jeff’s crews spent more time getting work done.
  4. Training – Brian was too busy to train. If an employee was confused, Brian stepped in and did it faster, and better then they could. Jeff saw the value in pausing to explain the method he would use to perform the task. He’d break it down in steps. First he’d show the employee. Then he’d take time away from his own task to watch as the employee repeated the steps.  Brian thought that doing it himself was the ‘only way’ things would get done right and on time. Jeff realized that 4 people working at 90% is far more productive than a crew with 1 person at 110% and 3 people working at 50%.
  5. Motivation – Brian motivated with fear. You did your work right, or you were going to hear about it – or maybe worse.  Jeff didn’t tolerate incompetence, but he didn’t need fear. Jeff used his daily meetings to make sure his crew understood the goals. You knew the plan, your role in the plan, and that you’d be responsible for reporting your results at the end of the day. Jeff gave his people the information they needed to see the job unfold the way he did. Moving up the chain, I needed to give Jeff the information so he envisioned the job the way I did. With this system in place, Jeff’s crew made the job happen as I planned it, and when you get this right, your company enjoys an serious competitive advantage.

Had I known what I know now, I would have invested more time and effort to help Brian realize his potential. I would have recognized that his hard work was a sign of problems, not a sustainable pattern of success. He was stressed, he burned out, his jobs weren’t very profitable and we lost a good employee and a great opportunity.  We all paid a price.

It’s not always going to work out.  No matter how hard we try, some people will never become Brians. Some Brians will never become Jeffs. But I can’t put my company’s success on hold while we hope that a few Jeffs walk in the front doors of my office looking for work. By investing in training and developing leaders, we improve productivity, planning, profits, and the work-life balance that keeps us all better balanced in an industry where it’s easy to go over the edge.

*Names have been changed

Mark Bradley is president of The Beach Gardener and the Landscape Management Network (LMN). LMN offers landscape contractors systems and online training built to help great landscape contractors build great landscape businesses.

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