If you are an owner of an engineering or construction company that has celebrated its 10th anniversary, you know that you are part of an elite group. According to the US Department of Commerce, construction and contracting businesses have the highest failure rate of any business. Up to 96% of these companies fail before reaching 10 years in business.
The business owners I work with often share the story of the early days of their companies. The teamwork, the camaraderie, the confidence that there is nothing that can’t be achieved as long as we remain committed.
Many mourn the loss of those simpler times. A recurrent issue when coaching business owners and executives is helping them see and hear the truth about their company. They aren’t getting the whole story from their employees. It is no longer safe to tell the boss about a problem. Employees see that performance standards vary widely. The boss has her favorites. Excuses are made for under-performers and issues get swept under the rug without resolution.
It doesn’t have to be that way. You can realign your company and employees in a way that reignites the passion and promise of those early days. It takes time and effort, but so does anything worth having. Here are four focus areas to help get you started.
Clearly Define Your Strategy
When employees no longer understand the company’s mission, vision, values, and goals they feel as though they are free falling. They tend to make it up as they go along. For example, safety is touted as the top priority, more important than profits. But when an office worker slips on a wet floor, the safety officer pays her visit and discusses how a doctor visit might hurt the company. Or, the leader whose mantra is do the right thing for our clients and the profits will follow but blows his stack when doing so results in lower profits.
Every employee must understand the company strategy and how the work they do contributes to the success of the firm. That requires having open and honest discussions about the company, how the strategy will impact each department and position, and getting clarity and alignment on the path forward.
Use a Transparent Performance Criteria and Rewards System
A coaching client shared a common sentiment on performance management. “It doesn’t matter how much work I bring in. All negative customer feedback is rejected, and excuses are made to protect his favorites. He pretends to listen to me, but nothing ever changes.” When accountability is lacking or perceived to be unfair, people feel compelled to embellish their accomplishments and hide, or make excuses for their shortfalls. Research on organizational injustice shows a direct correlation between an employee’s sense of fairness and a conscious choice to sabotage the organization. Sometimes, unfair comparison among employees leads directly to unethical behavior.
For example, an IT worker with a disproportionate number of personal issues is defended by his compassionate supervisor for mistakes and missed deadlines. When a co-worker pitches in to help him complete an assignment, the supervisor publicly praises the employee for getting the work done, but neither acknowledged the contributions of the supportive co-worker. When asked to lend a hand again, the co-worker agrees, but backs out at the last minute so the deadline is missed.
I am an advocate for ongoing, interactive feedback. Don’t wait until the annual performance review to recognize accomplishments and identify areas for improvement. Make time for one-on-one sessions that follow a standard approach across the organization. Look for patterns and share with other managers so all can learn and grow.
Create An Organizational Structure That Works
As a company grows, clearly defined roles and responsibilities are necessary. Workers and managers have greater responsibility and more authority than the early days when every decision rolled up to the owner. Everybody needs to know, understand, and accept the structure. There must be a process by which decision makers come together to have honest conversations about real issues.
When communication is poor and improperly disseminated or assumed that everyone knows, employees must rely on rumors and gossip. Information is power and those in the know can wield it to their own advantage.
A company I work with has a weekly meeting with all departments participating. When the meeting was first introduced years ago, it was intended to help with resource planning and scheduling. Now that the company is considerably larger, as many as 20-30 people are in the one-hour meeting. Following the meeting is the weekly chorus of sidebars complaining about all the decisions that haven’t been made and issues that are unresolved.
A well-structured meeting with an agenda, purposeful outcomes, and a strong leader or moderator can inform, educate, and inspire.
Eliminate the Silos
It doesn’t matter how much collaboration software you buy; silos exist. I see them evolve in small and mid-sized companies when managers and key people jump the chain of command and go directly to the boss. Often, these folks are viewed as trusted advisors. They have the boss’s ear and have history and familiarity on their side.
The boss steps up to solve the problem rather than encouraging collaboration and problem solving between groups. Over time, there is a learned helplessness. It robs the employees of growing and developing new skills and fun that comes from being part of a team. Conflicts and rivalries are left unaddressed and that harms the entire organization and changes the culture.
Silos set up a win/lose environment. Each team is a fierce competitor, and enemy to be feared, hated, or blamed. In a well-structured organization, establishing trust and fostering cooperation between groups can be a shared goal and performance metric that is tracked. Departments that work together must have transparent processes and clearly defined responsibilities. Understanding what each group must do to get the desired outcome helps them look for efficiencies that create a win/win outcome.
The 1994 movie, “A Few Good Men” tells the story of a military lawyer played by Tom Cruise defending two U.S. Marines charged with killing a fellow Marine at the naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Jack Nicholson plays the commanding officer who is suspected of ordering the marine to be killed in what is known as a Code Red. There is a famous scene in which Cruise’s character demands the truth and Nicholson blurts out, “You can’t handle the truth!”
It takes strength and courage to seek the truth. But if you, the business leader, won’t demand it, don’t expect your employees to be open and honest. The fact is you can handle the truth. The few moments of discomfort when hearing something you don’t like will pass. The more you get the issues out on the table the more adept and creative you and your team will be at working together to grow the business.
Getting to the truth takes hard work. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you want help uncovering the truth in your organization, let’s talk.