Contractor Tip of the Month: All Problems are People Problems

Words: Damian Lang

Damian Lang

"When hiring, look for the people with the right attitude. Skills can be taught. Attitude changes require a brain transplant."

 – Elon Musk

On the surface, it looks like I am in the construction, specialized equipment, and safety gear businesses. But the reality is those are all outcomes. I am actually in the people business, from our customers to our vendors, and especially our employees. Without them, it would be impossible for our businesses to be successful. No matter what business you are in, the very people that you rely on are the fundamental essence of all your problems. 

Not long ago, I was giving some customers a tour of one of our factories when I saw a laser cutter was out of commission. This was alarming because this piece of equipment costs over $1 million, and the payments do not stop when the machine is down. 

My technician, who was working diligently to get it back online, assured me it would not be long before she was up and running. I chuckled at how he brought in the human element to the situation by referring to the laser as a female. She (the laser) was down but had no emotional issues the technician would have to deal with. 

When the visiting customers pointed out the inoperative laser, I reminded them that while it would only be down for a short time, it would not be, in the meantime, creating additional problems in the plant. In fact, I told them the other lasers continued to run just fine, unphased by the issues their “sister” was having.  

We continued our tour to the area where our robotic welder was welding parts together with no human in sight. One of the customers inquired if there was an advantage to using robots. I was quick with my response. 

I told him, “Yes, a robot does not complain about having to work long days, it does not call off work to recover from a drunken bender, and it never complains or has injuries that lead to workers' compensation claims.” 

The Lesson: Equipment problems are easier to manage than people problems.

At the office a couple of days later, one of my managers, whom I have worked with for 20 years and someone I consider a confidant, stopped by and told me the operations manager (OM) I hired a few months ago is pissing everyone off with his management style. He said that we had already lost some great employees, and there are rumors that more are ready to follow suit. 

This surprised me because I thought the OM was doing a pretty good job. I decided to investigate if there was any merit to what I was hearing. I went to the job sites and talked to some of the field staff as well as every superintendent (SI) and foreman who reported to the OM. Although a couple said good things about him, the vast majority did not like the change I made in hiring this guy. “He treats us like peons,” was one of the complaints.

Seeking further evidence, I went to another job site where one of our best SIs told me he would have quit over the OM had I not shown up when I did.

The Lesson: Rumors usually have merit. You better follow up on them. 

When I asked the all-star SI what the OM was doing that upset him enough that he would consider leaving, he explained it was about the difference in leadership style. The example he used was related directly to the engagement we had when I arrived. 

“When you came to talk to me a few minutes ago, the first things you asked were how am I holding up with the long travel to this job site, whether it is affecting my family life, and if I am okay.”

I learned the OM is not keen on being friendly or even courteous when he engages the team. My SI described how the OM launches into criticism as soon as he gets to the job site without asking questions. He went on to substantiate his claims with some very compelling examples. 

I had ample evidence and took immediate action. I wrote an evaluation of my OM, and his response was what I expected after talking to my team. In addition to telling me I do not know how to run a company, he said the people in the field were the real issue rather than his personality or management style. 

For the betterment of the business, I reduced my people problems by one that day. When I returned to the job site to announce the OM's departure and that I would be taking over until he could be replaced, to my astonishment, I got a standing ovation.

The Lesson: Always put the concerns of your people before company results, and the results will come.

Power struggles among upper management can also lead to people problems throughout the entire organization. Therefore, I wrote a message to myself that hangs on my office wall as a reminder. It states:

“If we are not united within, the outside world will destroy us.” 

When managers are not working in unison, I give myself only three options: Fix, remove, or step down as CEO. Our teams know this, and if I feel friction among managers, we immediately have a heart-to-heart discussion about the importance of being on the same page. I let them know if they cannot work out their differences, one of them will have to go. 

Power struggles among management can also be dangerous. One of our companies had injury rates several times higher than our sister companies. After interviewing several of the crew leaders and some of the team, I saw that it was obvious management was grappling with who was in control, which left our field operations team confused as to whom they should follow.

After I counseled the management team to fix the situation many times, it became apparent they were unwilling to resolve their issues, and as a result, we had to remove all of the upper management. 

The Lesson: Power struggles among leaders impact the whole team. It results in tension and anxiety, which creates dissatisfaction that ultimately drives injury rates higher.

There are countless lessons to learn when you are running a business. I just gave you four, and those are from a slow week. But the underlying theme in all these lessons is that all problems are people problems. 

Sure, the robot welder and other automated equipment are nice. But the fact of the matter is, you cannot have a business without people; therefore, you are going to have problems. It is how you handle those problems that determine your success.

About The Author

Damian Lang is CEO at Lang Masonry Contractors, JVS Masonry, Buckner and Sons Masonry, Wolf Creek Construction, Buckeye Construction and Restoration, 3 Promise Labor Services, Malta Dynamics Fall Protection and Safety Company, and EZG Manufacturing. To view the products and equipment his companies created to make job sites safer and more efficient, visit his websites at ezgmfg.com or maltadynamics.com. To receive his free e-newsletters or to speak with Damian on his management systems or products, email dlang@watertownenterprises.com, or call 740-749-3512.

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