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Developing leaders in snow & ice companies

  • SIMA
- Posted: April 27, 2014

By Mike Lysecki

There is no more important factor in building a great, profitable service business than great people. As your business grows, it’s easy to find more equipment, more de-icers (most years!) and more office equipment. Growing your sales isn’t always easy, but with great people, growing your sales can be easier. When your company has great service, and has employees who can do the job 25% faster than your competitors, it’s easy to sell more work – at better profit margins. But what’s the secret to develop better employees and better leaders?

What’s In It for Them?
Start by taking a hard, honest look at your incentive system. Chances are your employees are paid hourly, or perhaps a salary for the winter. What’s their motivation to take on more responsibility for success? What’s their reward for company success? Is there a system, or just a hope?

Imagine an NFL with a straight annual salary for running backs and every running back more or less fell into a range +/- 10% of that average. Would you have players fighting for every yard with 3 guys hanging off their back, or would they be stepping out of bounds at the first sign of trouble – doing just enough to avoid getting cut? What’s their incentive for going over and above basic expectations?

Worse yet, can you imagine if the league didn’t keep stats? Imagine a game where nobody tracked the score of the game, the rushing yards, or passes completed. They just put their heads down, played their 60 min of football, then went on to the next game, oblivious to their performance, or the teams’ standings. Would superstars even want to play the game?

For most small businesses, this is the exactly the reality of business. There are no goals, there is not enough score-keeping, and most of all – there is no system to correlate performance in the field to employees’ paychecks. As owners, we get what we deserve – employees who are in it for the hours – and not much else. After all, if it’s not worth the time and effort for owners to develop a system, it certainly isn’t worth it for employees to work as if there was one.

With variable weather, it’s harder to implement performance bonuses in snow and ice, but it’s by no means impossible. There are many different systems you can use – they all have strengths and weaknesses.

Leaders Are Made By More Than a Paycheck
Paying for performance helps, but it’s not going to be the answer to every problem. Just because someone is paid well doesn’t mean they’re going to perform well. Your favorite sports team has its own examples, but remember Ryan Leaf ($32M), Alexei Yashin ($87M), or Stephon Marbury ($76M)?

Leaders are not just born – they are be made, and they can fail. As an owner, you need to build a company culture that builds leaders beneath you. There is no secret to pulling yourself out of the day-to-day firefighting of the business. The solution is simple: Teach others to do it better than you can!

In fact, that same principle applies to everyone in your company. As long as you are the best shoveller, plow operator, or heavy equipment operator, salesperson or manager, then you will have to stay in these roles. But if can you teach others to do it better than you can, your value increases and you will advance up the ranks, both in status and in pay.

Here are some principles to remember:

  • Supervisors discipline employees for problems. Leaders implement systems that eliminate problems.
  • Supervisors follow up to ensure things are done right. Leaders ensure people are doing the right things.
  • Supervisors manage people. Leaders motivate people.
  • Supervisors demand suggestions. Leaders inspire improvement daily.

In our snow & ice business, we’ve found the best way to teach these principles (beyond just a meeting) is with power questions. When someone comes forward with a problem, you respond with a question such as, “How would you solve the problem?” or “What would you do about it?”

Your staff won’t always come up with the best solution, but this question is an important step in teaching them to think like leaders. Outside of meetings, you can now turn every company problem into a lesson (and there are no shortage of problems!). Help them devise a better solution using questions to guide their thoughts until you are both happy with the solution. Then, reply with “Sounds great, this is the kind of thinking we’re looking for here. Let’s make this change. When will you have this implemented for all our crews?”

Now it’s their responsibility, not yours. Not only have you taught them to do what you do – solve problems, you’ve also made the fix their responsibility. You’re building leaders, and you’re preserving your valuable time.

When a company has 10 people solving problems and implementing solutions, they’ll get 10x better, 10x faster. Better, faster companies sell more work, pay better wages, and make better profits than companies who are stuck waiting on actions from one overworked, underpaid owner. Sound enticing?  It should.

Now that this sounds good, “What are you going to do about it?” Do you have a pay-for-performance for snow and ice that worked? Post your comments and let’s hear about it. Different perspectives might just inspire us to develop a better system that works for everyone!

Mike Lysecki was the director of operations at TBG Landscape and now serves as the director of Landscape Management Network. LMN is an online suite of estimating and business management systems for the landscape and snow & ice industries.

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