For the purposes of this article, we’re using the word disconnect to mean a lack of communication and/or agreement. The first disconnect that holds a construction leader back is a disconnect within his or her own mind. Contractors thrive on long hours, selflessness, hard work and commitment. Dennis Engelbrecht says that contractors think they have to be 110% busy 110% of the time! But your owners, trade partners, and others interested in your company don't care about hard work. They want to know that you add value. Toiling tirelessly allows people to earn success so they can climb the leadership ladder. But all that hard work blinds senior leaders to the fact that there's a different kind of hard work, and that's the hard work of WORKING ON YOUR BUSINESS. Senior leaders must realize that working hard on projects is far less important than working hard to engineer the kind of company they want. My friend and industry peer Arlin Sorenson says, "Nobody pays for hard work." He's right; what people pay you for is your demonstrated capability of adding value.
The second disconnect is owners who are not in alignment. When we started working with contractors 33 years ago, most companies had a single or perhaps two owners. Now many, many of our members have multiple owners. In fact, 10% of our members are ESOPs. If the owners of a construction firm are not in alignment, that's going to cause problems. Here is a personal witness. When I started The Family Business Institute with my father-in-law, we pedaled the bicycle as hard as we could just to survive. When we finally got through the survival stage and reached stability, we were able to pedal a little less furiously, but we still had to work hard. During that time, it became apparent that we didn't want the same things from the business. What he wanted was a comfortable business that supported his lifestyle. What I wanted was a company that worked really well whether I showed up or not. You can't average that out. We tried for a number of years; in fact, we may have been the first family business consulting firm that had to hire a family business consultant because we diverged so much in what we each wanted from the company! If you suspect your ownership is not in alignment, get that on the table early. If it's a problem now, bring it up, and deal with it because it's only going to be a bigger problem as time passes.
The third disconnect is leadership teams that are not in alignment. This kind of misalignment can work two ways. In the first, the team is more ambitious and hungrier than the owners. The other side of that coin is that owners are hungrier and more ambitious than the team. In the first case you're going to lose people. The best people in construction want a fast pace, to hustle, to get ahead, and to innovate. They want to improve your reputation, your quality, your deliverables, employee morale, and everything else. If the owner holds them back, even unintentionally, they'll leave in order to find a place where their ambitions can be realized. In the opposite case, owners are more ambitious than the team. However, even the most talented contractor can only drive success so far. To get a construction company to realize even a moderate hope of sustainability, the owner has to surround himself with people of equal drive and talent. It's a sad fact that many contractors don't really have businesses; they have jobs. A business is perpetual. It can go on beyond the working lifetime of the owners or senior leaders. A job is very different; if you can't get out there and run a crew because you have two broken legs, you're out of luck. An enterprise of this sort is not sustainable and, therefore, it cannot really be defined as a business at all.
Leaders must be connected in their own minds, with the ownership team, and with the leadership team. To then get to a point where true alignment and engagement are possible, you have to have four additional things:
1. A written plan
2. A plan for communicating and evangelizing the written plan throughout your organization
3. An execution plan
4. An evaluation process (are we on plan? If not, why not?)
Working on your business and creating connection and alignment throughout are very, very difficult tasks indeed. Perhaps that's why so many construction firms never achieve sustainability. The owners and leaders are capable of very hard work when it comes to their jobs, but they don’t make the big leap to become expert at the biggest job of all—working on the business.