If you're married to your business, take my advice: Get a divorce. Your business doesn't need a husband; it needs someone to be the boss.

Marriages are for partners; businesses are for bosses. (I'm talking about sole owners here — partnerships are a different matter.) Being in a marriage means making decisions together with a partner; owning a business by yourself means you're in charge. No one takes the same risks, no one has equal responsibility. The buck stops at your door and no one else's. An employee who can't listen to the boss can't be part of the business.

By the time I opened my design/build company, I had learned what not to do from previous jobs. I knew that the only way to assemble a strong team was to create a structured company. I wanted procedures to be the backbone of the business environment, so I laid out the rules and then did the unthinkable: I demanded that everyone follow them.

Friend to Friend I was a boss before I was a friend. My employees didn't have to like me, they just had to follow my rules. That's not easy in an industry where we often hire our buddies and relatives to staff a company. It's not that these people don't make good employees, but the big unknown is whether someone accustomed to being your pal outside of work will follow your orders when it comes to business. The key is to establish clear rules from the outset that distinguish the business relationship from the friendship.

But even when we don't hire our buddies, we sometimes fail to hold employees accountable to our systems because we're afraid to lose them. Maybe your most talented lead carpenter thinks the rules don't apply to him. If you choose to look the other way, watch out. Your employees learn by example, and if one of them gets a break, soon everyone will want one.

The reality is that employees, even your superstars, can be replaced. Your goal is to recruit, hire, and train people who will follow your system. And then work to retain them.

Good as Gold One of the easiest ways to build a team like that is to make sure your word is as good as gold. When everyone is held to the same standards, you and your company win respect. You don't have to be a tyrant. Good bosses can be approachable, likeable, and downright nice guys. But when they say something, their employees need to know they mean it.

It often takes only one test to find out. My test had to do with time cards. In my company, as a prerequisite to handing out paychecks every Thursday, it was up to the lead carpenters to turn in time cards for themselves and their teams. Because time cards were the best way to ensure that job costing was accurate, the rule was “No time cards, no paychecks.” Everyone knew this rule from the first day they were employed with my company. Once, a lead showed up without the time cards, so I held the paychecks. It never happened again. Was I the bad guy? No, because I was following the rule. But the lead carpenter sure felt lousy for having let everyone down.

The same is true for vendor relationships. In a recent training class, a remodeler said he was having trouble with a vendor who was supplying crooked stock in shipments of framing lumber. His team had to go through the load to cull it for the good lumber and ship the crooked stock back to the supplier to be replaced. It was a headache and a time-waster. The solution was to explain to the vendor that it was not the remodeler's job to sift through framing lumber and that if future shipments contained substandard lumber, the entire load would be returned. It took just one full return order to ensure the quality of the framing lumber in all future deliveries.

—Shawn McCadden, CR, CLC, recently sold his Arlington, Mass.–based employee-managed design/build remodeling business. In his second career, he is director of education for DreamMaker Bath & Kitchen by Worldwide. Send e-mail to shawnm@charter.net.