In the evolution of my business, I discovered that there was a significant difference between a production system driven by a production manager and one driven by a lead carpenter. For me, the lead carpenter system was hands-down a much more profitable way to manage projects. That's not to say that my company didn't still require production managers. But how I redefined their roles and authority determined our ability to succeed as a team.

The Dictator Typically, a production manager directs and supports the carpenters under his or her supervision. Whether he owns the business or is employed by it, the production manager calls all the shots about who will work where, what they will do, and in what sequence they will do it.

A production manager expects carpenters to do as they are told and to stay focused on assigned tasks. To make sure everything happens according to plan, he or she also generates the materials lists and chases down supplies and delivers them to the jobsite to keep projects moving forward.

Before you know it, you have either a dictator or a highly paid baby sitter, or both, running jobs. So, when the crew is out of nails at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, they call the production manager, then take a break and wait to be rescued. Sound familiar?

Sometimes this scenario stems from a lack of management skills, but the more likely cause is lack of a production management system. Too often the result is a production manager who becomes overwhelmed and burned out — maybe even hostile. And carpenters, who are simply doing as they were instructed, can also get frustrated with their manager and quit. Everyone is a victim in this less-than-perfect system.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

The Production Mentor At my company, I found that a well-run lead carpenter system worked best when the production manager acted as a mentor rather than as a supervisor. The lead carpenter system ultimately brought management of the project to the jobsite. Each person in the production department knew what his role and contribution would be as part of the overall success of the team. Then, acting as a mentor, the production manager set the example for his team. He or she worked with the lead carpenters, often side by side, to implement the company's system. As a result, the field staff came to enjoy the benefits of working with their mentor, not for a supervisor.

The mentor turned the team's mistakes to advantages by using them as positive learning experiences. Ideally, each mistake was measured not by what went wrong, but rather by what the whole team had learned as a result. I watched my team use one person's mistake as an opportunity to create a new mentor. By explaining what went wrong, why it went wrong, and what he learned from his mistake, that employee set an example for the rest of the team.

One important and valuable benefit of this culture was the creation of future leaders that the business needed as it grew.

I credit my employees with the idea of the “Production Mentor.” They were the ones who saw that using this approach worked better not only for them, but also for the company. Whether they realized it or not, everyone became a mentor to someone else. Some eventually moved into management positions, too.

Are you managing systems, or are you hand-holding highly capable individuals? You can grow a team of real producers by mentoring and empowering everyone to do great things. Or you can work your dictators into the ground and frustrate the rest of the workforce. The road you choose is yours, but the success you reap can be everyone's.

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