How to succeed as a company owner

There will always be natural leaders - those who almost have it in their blood. But in the world of business, effective managers are usually not born, they are created through a conscious commitment to develop the skills and processes to effectively hire and manage employees.

There will always be natural leaders - those who almost have it in their blood.

But in the world of business, effective managers are usually not born, they are created through a conscious commitment to develop the skills and processes to effectively hire and manage employees

Unfortunately, many sheet metal and HVAC business owners are "accidental leaders" who came to the role of business owner as skilled tradesmen, but have not developed the necessary people skills to be effective managers.

Businesses run by accidental leaders experience a host of problems. Convinced that they are essential to the moment-by-moment operation of every aspect of the business, owners spend more time dealing with employees than actually running the business. Companies run by accidental leaders are often also difficult to grow and sell because, without their owners, they do not function.

Employees of such companies don't really know what is expected of them, or feel like the rules are always changing. Owners ask for the same things repeatedly, needing to remind people what to do next. When the owner is not present, or takes a vacation, things aren't done correctly.

Accidental leaders discover that management and leadership are not as easy as they thought and become a constant source of challenge and frustration. Unprepared business owners often declare, "I'm not a babysitter!" or "Why can't these people just figure it out?"


They may begin to make compromises as a way of avoiding confronting employee issues directly. They think:

"Maybe his work isn't all that great, but at least he shows up."

"Maybe he doesn't show up all the time, but at least his work is great when he does."

"I just can't deal with the confrontation again; nothing changes anyway."

"What if he quits, there's no one else out there. You just can't find good quality technicians that want to work hard."

"Someone, even this poor-quality worker, is better than no one."

By ignoring these symptoms, contractors allow the problems to suck away their life, their energy and, yes, their profit. All of these scenarios, when left unchecked, can hurt a company, fostering a reputation for shoddy work and a resulting slowdown in calls for bids.

Why is a lack of good management one of the key problems within most small businesses? For one, most business owners lack any formal training in people-management skills. Unlike large companies, small businesses lack a human resources department or key trained staff to implement formal management systems.

Ask Questions

Contractors need to ask themselves the following questions:

Would your business be in a shambles if you took a month off?

Are you working too hard for the return on your investment?

Are you fighting fires with no time to think, plan or manage?

Do you have trouble finding good employees and capable managers?

Do you believe that success requires pain and sacrifice?

The starting point for correcting these common challenges is admitting that management is not a skill that "just happens" or comes naturally to most people. Fortunately, there are systems-based solutions to these common business issues.

Achieving consistent, repeatable, high-quality results in any area of business comes from a conscious commitment to develop systems that allow a business to operate effectively.

A system is simply a process that lets people achieve a consistent result, and can be as simple as the fast-food french fry scoop that produces a consistent portion, or a clock that verifies work hours, or a checklist for the janitor.

Most important, management systems let you create the result you want without doing it yourself or looking over employers' shoulders every minute. If done correctly, they will set you free from the day-to-day firefighting that consumes many business owners.

You may be saying to yourself, "Yeah, sure, systems are great. I get that. I use systems all the time in other areas of my business, but not with people issues. People are just difficult - they are all over the place. You can't manage people with systems."

This type of resistance to management systems is common, but there is a simple approach that any contracting company can use to get consistent results.

'Hard' and 'soft' systems

Management systems can be divided into two broad categories: "hard" and "soft" systems.

"Hard" systems, which provide the structure in which the people operate, include the formal roles, expectations and working relationships within the company. Hard systems include:

  • Infrastructure

  • Organization strategies

  • Job descriptions

  • Standard operating procedures

  • Training manual

    "Soft" systems deal with the "people" side of the equation. Soft systems include:
    • Delegating
    • Communication
    • Recruiting
    • Accountability
    • People problems

    Create a manual

    Here is a proven approach for starting the process of adding a system to your business and creating a sound approach to employee management.

    To communicate the processes and structure of your business, you need to create a training and procedures manual to capture and organize all the information people need to be effective at their jobs. Ideally, this allows them to walk in, follow the procedures in the manual, and produce excellent, consistent results without having to ask any questions. This training and procedures manual is a bible for each employee to keep and use as their first source of answers.

    Start by breaking down each process within your business and write out the steps to complete it. Don't do the whole thing at once. The first few will be challenging because they'll require even more of your time, but once you complete a few and give these duties to others, you'll have more time to develop the other processes and systems.

    To act as an effective manager, you cannot feel like your employees hold you hostage. The process starts with the right attitude where you:
    • Make hiring great people a priority.

    • Devote appropriate time, energy, effort and money to the recruiting process.

    • Understand that hiring is a skill that requires training and practice.

    • First, commit to hiring only the best. Don't compromise. Accept nothing less.

    This means you'll need to do some homework. If you hire employees while you're under pressure and in a rush, you'll get exactly what you deserve - whatever warm body happens to be in the neighborhood. And you'll moan about there being "no good people out there" when in fact you haven't really bothered to look for them.

    The market

    You'll also need to understand the marketplace. You need to know the answers to these questions: Are skilled people easy to find? What is the unemployment rate in your area? What trends are happening? Is a big local employer laying off workers? Is a new trade school just graduating its first class? What is the compensation like?

    Recruiting is like marketing and sales - you need to have a unique selling proposition. Know what makes you desirable as an employer and why someone should work for you. Don't think because you aren't one of the "big players" offering great salary and benefits packages that you aren't able to attract good people. You just need to know and communicate what you offer.

    When you have an effective way to attract and hire quality employees, you won't be afraid to manage your people and uphold rules and standards, especially those you may not be enforcing now because of a fear of losing people you cannot replace.

    If you've just started a new company, it's understandable to be working lots of hours and wearing lots - or all - of the hats. If you're a year or two down the road, grossing several hundred thousand dollars or more and you're still doing it all, that's another story. Either your business model is faulty or you just like hanging on to the simple work.


    Delegating requires more than just a few bucks to pay the employee; it requires you to let go of some authority and control, for you to trust somebody else to do it right, and to accept that the business can indeed survive without you having your mitts on everything.

    Delegating also removes a big excuse for not progressing on the big stuff you've been putting off.

    If you might now be more open to the idea of delegation, here a few pointers:

    Get your head straight. Work through the issues of letting go, your role, etc. If you don't get this part right, you won't get the rest done.

    Start small: If you're not comfortable with a new full-time employee, you can hire a part timer or, if your fear of commitment is too big even for that, try contracting out some tasks.

    Don't sabotage the process: Provide complete training to the employee. Be available for questions but don't hover over his or her shoulder.

    Have a plan for the time you recover: Make a list of all those big projects you've never gotten around to doing. Create a formal strategy for your business. Develop yourself as a leader and owner rather than a worker.

    Communicate effectively. To be a good leader, your people must be empowered to make decisions on their own, a process that relies on effective communication.

    To make good decisions, employees need to understand how their actions impact the overall business. It's the leader's job to ensure that everyone understands what's going on, where people fit in, how they're doing (both individually and as a group) and what's being planned.

    A lack of communication within your business can result in a culture of chaos and fear, which makes for bad performance. When employees are scared or unsure about what's happening in the business, they focus on that fear or "go with the flow" instead of doing a great job.

    Information vacuums will be filled one way or another. Either you fill the vacuum with facts, or the grapevine will fill it with rumors that are invariably wrong, blown out of proportion, or foretell the company's doom.

    If you build a reputation for keeping employees properly informed, they're much more likely to ignore rumors and stay productive, secure in the knowledge that if it's important, you'll tell them.