One of the walls of my office is covered with team pictures from the 12 or so years I spent coaching various groups of kids, from first grade to high school, in soccer and baseball, and later, lacrosse.
In their younger years, there was a lot of growth in one season, in physical maturity and skill development and also in the understanding of teamwork. Both of these skill sets — the physical mastery of skills and an understanding of group dynamics and interpersonal relationships as they affect group performance — have interesting parallels in my remodeling business.
I started Lauten Construction in 1987, and it has grown steadily into a high-end remodeling company. By industry standards, we have a lot of employees — 20 — for our gross volume, just over $2 million in 2005. I suppose this is at least partly because I enjoy seeing and being involved in the personal growth of the men and women who make up the company.
I have read many management books. Most of the ones that really resonate with me include the themes of empowering employees, delegating responsibility, and encouraging leadership from below. I have always appreciated Stephen Covey's insights in the classic 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, including management by the creation of win-win performance agreements. I also like Flight of the Buffalo by Belasco and Stayer, which focuses solely on learning to let employees lead. And recently I read Birth of the Chaordic Age by Dee Hock, which takes the counterintuitive but well-reasoned position that leadership involves managing ourselves, then our superiors, then our peers, and, finally, our subordinates, in that order.
One of Covey's principles that has stuck with me is the necessity for balance between production and the creation of the capacity to produce. In the case of my remodeling company, that translates into teaching skills to less-experienced employees, giving those who want to learn the opportunity to develop into better craftspeople, and giving experienced craftspeople the opportunity to become managers.
When we help someone develop or improve their skills by coaching them, providing the opportunity for them to grow, and following the procedures for delegation (well described by Covey), we build the productive capacity of the company (our team), as well as the individual, and even the industry. The team starts to win.
Does time built into a job for “teaching” cost our customers more, or does the improved efficiency of the employee create a savings for them? I think it balances out, and it seems that in the kind of high-end remodeling that we do, we all are learning on the job a good part of the time, even the most experienced among us.
Sometimes, the patience, trust, and room to grow given to employees is abused. Does that mean the system doesn't work?
My answer is this: The enjoyment that I have gotten from seeing employees go from green helpers to competent mechanics, or from skilled tradesmen to skilled managers of people, budgets, schedules, and systems, more than makes up for the few who didn't work out. I also enjoy seeing my employees begin to settle down, get married, and start families, supporting themselves with skills they have learned working for my company.
It is not only my staff that has benefited from coaching. When you're standing on the sidelines and watching the team play, it is much easier to have a clear and balanced perspective about what is working well and what needs improvement. It is much more difficult to evaluate your own problems and potential solutions. That is why I have my own business coach, a professional to bounce ideas off, who gives me feedback and practical advice from an independent point of view. As Peter Senge says in The Fifth Discipline, “There's nothing more powerful you can do to encourage others in their quest for personal mastery than to be serious in your own quest.” —Robert Lauten is the owner of a remodeling company in Purcellville, Va.