Jody Kenote took up framing at the age of 14, sharpened his carpentry skills in vo-tech school, and worked for a handful of companies before joining DG Liu Contractor, Dickerson, Md., in 1997. He was 31 and “a framing Yoda,” says his boss Jerry Liu (at left in photo), who quickly promoted him to lead carpenter.

Photo: Max Hirshfeld

A little over a year later, Kenote (at right in photo) quit and uprooted his family to Florida. “I didn't like the way it was” at DG Liu, he says. The problem wasn't so much the variety of carpentry jobs, including drywall, trim, and cabinets, as it was all the managing that the position entailed: crews, subcontractors, deliveries, paperwork, homeowners. “You spend all your time on the phone; it's next to impossible to be efficient,” Kenote says. Besides, he adds, “my favorite thing to do is frame.”

Liu wasn't surprised. He recalls Kenote as “an excellent carpenter, but really miserable managing,” as were his other lead carpenters. “We were having chronic gross profit slippage, and we would hear again and again that the lead carpenters were getting frustrated that they were spending so much of their time not practicing their trade but having to deal with management issues.”

A year or so later, Kenote returned to Maryland and did some subcontracting for DG Liu. “We framed a house in record time,” Kenote recalls, and the two agreed to meet for dinner. Getting right to the point, Liu asked what Kenote really wanted to do — what it would take for him to rejoin the company. “I said, basically, framing,” Kenote recalls. His former boss not only gave it a go, but he proposed abandoning the lead carpenter system in favor of specialty crews. Kenote would head the framing crew.

Today, Kenote frames all day; most of his former management responsibilities are absorbed by production managers. Two other men run the trim and siding crews. “It's a different world for the crew leaders,” Liu says. “They're getting more work done and more satisfaction,” and the company is more profitable. Revenue hit $4 million in 2005, Liu says, and should break $5 million this year. In January, he handed out more than $35,000 in bonuses in his first-ever profit-sharing program for production and office staff.

The Right Fit Liu's experience sheds light on some fundamental questions that are often overlooked in the nail-banging, numbers-meeting business of remodeling: How well do you really know your employees? How deeply do you scratch beneath the surface of their prior experience to understand their real strengths and aptitudes, and how —not just where — they'll fit into your company?

The answers are the building blocks of a business philosophy we'll call strength management. It espouses hiring and promoting people based on their inherent talents and inclinations, and giving them every opportunity to understand their role within the greater organization. According to this approach, you can't change who people are, but you can capitalize on their strong suits.

Photo: Kevin O. Mooney

In Liu's experience, the shift to specialty crews evolved out of Kenote's talents and “our growing realization that the lead carpenter system had inherent productivity limitations on larger jobs.” Subcontracting was not the answer, Liu says, “so basically, we decided to let carpenters do what they do best and not conform them to job management behaviors that were not natural for them.”

When the fit isn't obvious, Liu uses the DISC “personal assessment” system. (DISC stands for dominance, influence, steadiness, and conscientiousness, and indicates how individuals connect with others, make decisions, deal with change, and more.)

Liu describes DISC as both “unerringly accurate” and full of surprises. For instance, the assessments revealed that three other former lead carpenters were natural salespeople, positions that Liu had struggled to fill in the past. “We had gone through a couple of outside hires for sales — so-called salespeople,” he says. “But the only thing they sold was me.” By contrast, the former leads have thrived. One, Dale Kramer, sold $1.8 million worth of work in 2005.