Al Writes

Leading with Humor

Wouldn’t you agree that the work we do as contractors can literally be life and death? It’s serious business!

I definitely feel this is true.

A plumbing or drain company keeps good water from bad water. Just go online and look up the plague. You’ll see what existed in the world before proper  plumbing and sanitation changed it for the better. And plumbing and drain companies keep these systems functioning the way they must so we can stay alive and avoid illness. Without us, many people would be sick and dying.

A heating and cooling company not just keeps us warm in the winter and cool in the summer (which is very nice). In extreme cases for the young, the elderly, or the infirm, it too can be life and death. Remember, we “play with fire” as I told my own techs. Plus, we “play” with gas and fuel oil and even high voltage that in the wrong hands, untrained personnel, or even the inattentive tech can become very dangerous.

And electricians literally wrangle lightning and light our homes, power our communications abilities, and, in many homes, it is the “fuel” that provides the heating and cooling too. We take it for granted, but here too a lack of seriousness and attention to detail can cause real damage to life and property.

All of this is serious business.

BUT we can’t be deadly serious from sunup to sundown. We do need to be focused when we’re doing our work in every phase of our business, but we’re human beings, and without a break from it… it will wear you down if there’s no time to lighten up.

Here are just three ways humor helps:

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Beware Actions Born of Boredom

Many a client throughout the years has told me when I said they were taking actions out of boredom with the status quo, “Bored? I can hardly catch my breath!”

Maybe… maybe not.

You can be crazy busy, but activity can serve to mask the underlying boredom that can creep into our life at work. This is especially so in a maturing company. The goal for leadership must be to make their companies perform consistently better, and this can take its toll.

Boredom usually takes hold because this never ending-process is tough and, frankly, boring. So, they respond to it by starting a bunch of new projects that take away attention from the main objective they said they were pursuing.

Here are just four ways boredom can play out in a bad way:

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Marketing to Pick Up Dollars, Not Dimes

If you’ve been in the service contracting business for any length of time you know what it’s like when business slows down and money gets tight. And if you’re like most service contractors, marketing spend is usually the first thing to go!

My dad, Irving, called that “stepping over dollars to pick up dimes.”

Why? Because without marketing your phones are going to go dead and/or stay dead.

It might seem counter-intuitive but those slow times are actually the best times to be doing testimonial-based marketing, which I’ve seen work well not just for my own service contracting business but also for dozens of other contracting businesses ranging from plumbing, heating, cooling, electrical, roofing, garage door service—to name just a few.

To make sure the marketing of your contracting business hits the mark you’ll want to focus your time, energy and your money on three main drivers such as:

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Actions Speak Louder than Words – Fix Your Own First

“Do as I Say, Not as I Do” is a common refrain from a frustrated boss.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could say this and all your employees would do just this? Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.

If what you’re saying doesn’t match what you are doing, you’re busted.

The reason is all eyes are upon you all the time, and as the owner, you can’t hide. I understand that no one is perfect when it comes to everything they do as a leader, but the fact is your actions speak louder than your words.

Think of it this way: imagine your dad or mom are telling you as a young teenager that you have to quit smoking because it is dangerous to your health. The problem is they’re telling you this as the ashes are dropping off the cigarette dangling from their mouths.

You see it for what it is.

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A Better Way to Say Goodbye to Low Performers

Years ago, when I first entered the family business as the last brother in to what was then a 3rd generation service contracting business—now a 4th generation plumbing, heating, cooling and now electrical contracting business—my dad said to me, “You can no longer hire anyone until you prove you can fire someone the right way. Face it. You like hiring people. And who doesn’t? But you need to do both.”

Well, I didn’t like that message much, but I knew he was right. As an empathetic person I am able to put myself in another person’s shoes and see things from their perspective. And I could only imagine how bad it felt to get fired!

Our service contracting company was and still is a NYC Union Shop. When it came to employee relations that was both good and bad news. The good: there was formal process for disciplining and terminating employment. The bad: we were not consistently following the steps. (In our defense, they were not all that clear!)

The first few times I fired a bad employee they were genuinely surprised. Naturally, they wanted to unload their frustrations but I just wanted to get it over with so usually I cut them off. It went so badly a few times I’m lucky I didn’t get shot!

Something had to change. We had to figure out a “right” way to say goodbye to a bad employee. The answer was to create our own formal process, which we called “The Steps of Discipline.”

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What to Do When Family is Fighting at Work

The first thing to remember is that all companies act like families whether or not the people working together are related.

Someone is playing the role of Dad, Mom, Big Brother, and probably the Big Sister.

And very commonly in the home service business and contracting world, our businesses tend to be multi-generational, so it could be quite literally a family business acting this way.

Here’s the thing… what do you do when people are not getting along? In other words, how do you clear the air, and how do you keep it from escalating or spreading like wildfire throughout the company?

Here are 10 great tips from my own business career working with my dad and two older brothers and from helping clients who are and are not related with these very real issues that can destroy the company if not addressed quickly and in the right way:

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Who Goes to Training and Seminars? Probably Just You…

In the beginning of my work career, just my brother, Richie, and I attended advanced training at my company. After all, we were never going to leave the company, unlike the possibility that one of our employees might get this costly training and then leave us.

Did I say we were smart or thinking ahead at this point in our lives?… No!

What happened is when Richie and I went to Fireye® controls training in the Boston area, as an example, we were the only ones who would then be capable of handling the big commercial boilers when the client would call. Lucky us!

Nope, not really.

That’s because we had commercial and industrial accounts that operated 24/7/365, and despite our having four rotating crews of 4 Techs on until 2 AM, they would get to a job like this and have to call… you guessed it… Al or Richie.

Well, we hated that. Especially when they called us in the middle of the night or over the weekend. They were on a paid shift, mind you, and not On-Call. But they were stuck, and we blamed them for not knowing what to do.

Remember, it was our decision to not send them to the same training we had gone to.

Well, Richie and I may not have been forward thinking about this policy, but we were not dumb, and we quickly woke up to the reality that only by sending our Techs to the same training and seminars we attended could they ever be as effective as they needed to be.

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No Such Thing as Accidental Company Culture

One of the greatest lessons I got came along very early in my consulting career. I was very fortunate to work with the great Steve Lowry of Lowry Services in Pennsylvania.

Steve shared with me one day as we were pretty far along in our scope of work that other companies he competed with could copy everything he does from his truck design, his marketing, and a whole lot more, but they could never copy his company’s culture.

He was not bragging.

Steve told me one day as we were wrapping up work on one of the staffing programs, “Al, the better I treat my employees, the better they treat my customers and the more successful I have become. When they make customers incredibly happy and feel like they are treated well, they are all in with doing business with my company for life.”Company culture has to be cultivated in every transaction and interaction. It’s either getting better or its getting worse. There is no standing still. It takes work and that work is always ongoing.

What can you do to make company culture better at your company?

Here are just five ways to get you started on a better path based upon the great company cultures I’ve seen and helped make better.

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If Nothing Gets Done… You’re Responsible

Don’t look around for someone you can point the finger at because it’s you!

I say this because I used to blame people at my company for what didn’t get done or for what got done poorly. And I was all too happy to point the finger of blame. Yes, I’m a New Yorker, but don’t waste time figuring out which finger.

My flawed approach changed when I was lucky enough to get accepted into a great contractor affinity group. The reason it all changed is I was exposed to very successful contractors who were willing to share the lessons they had learned along the way to becoming successful. All I had to do was ask a question of them and shut up long enough to listen to the wisdom they were sharing.

Again, as a New Yorker, this wasn’t easy, but I wasn’t going to blow this golden opportunity. I bit my lip so I could shut up long enough to listen to the help they were giving me.

And what came back time and again from pretty much all of my whining about my staff and what they either didn’t get done or did poorly was that it was my fault, not theirs.  This was tough medicine but I was ready to take it.

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90% Chance Nothing Bad Will Happen

There’s a 90% chance nothing really bad will happen at your company if you spend at least two hours a week disconnecting from your business to work on it. BUT, there’s a 100% chance that failure is imminent if you’re unwilling to do this.

Pretty dramatic? Nope!

What separates the most successful contractors I’ve worked with from the ones for whom success eludes them, has nothing to do with how smart they are or their being in the right marketplace or anything like that. It was their ability to focus on getting things implemented at their company.

I’ve had clients pay me a lot of money to come and work with them. I can tell you I don’t vary my approach all that much, but I don’t use a cookie-cutter approach. That’s because I do tweak it to fit the type of contracting business I’m working with and where the existing company is on the business spectrum when I first arrive.

The reason I’ve been hired over the years to help contractors is…the business has reached an impasse (otherwise I wouldn’t be there). The impasse is different for different owners. Either they’ve grown to a size where they’ve run out of hours in a day, days in a week, weeks in a month and months in a year to get it all done. They can’t figure out how to clone themselves, so they are stuck. I also work with fast growing companies where they have grown chaotically, and they have tried to hire and throw people at the problems because they too realize they’re stuck. Both types of clients learn quickly that these issues will continue until they commit to work on changing how they run their business.

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