Finding and keeping good people is always a tough job. Given the present job market and the scarcity of good tradesmen, it's even tougher. If you have a shop that is blessed with enough work to keep a few crews (or more) busy, you've got to spend some time trying to keep your people productive and happy, but even more important, you've got to have great supervision in the field.
One of the hardest things an owner ever does is to put down his tool bags and become 'the boss'. Leaving the 'trenches' for the front office is a nerve wracking experience. The first thought you have is, “Will they do the work the way I did?” Answer: probably not. Next thought is, “Will productivity suffer if I'm not there keeping an eye on things?” Answer: probably, at first. Finally you get to, “What have I done?” Answer: grown your business.
The fact is that no one will work at your business as hard as you do, but if you've built your company into one which has grown big enough to require that you leave the production side to handle the management side then you are doing something right. This is especially true in the current business climate. For purpose of clarity and common language; the “office” is where the white collar stuff gets done, like prospecting for new work, estimating, contracts and contract negotiations, supply house ordering, vehicle maintenance, labor law compliance, taxes and payroll, among other things clerical. The “field” is where the work gets done that keeps the lights on in the office.
By the time you have decided to leave the field, it stands to reason that you'll have at least one or two of your people who you trust enough to stay and keep things running smoothly, or as smoothly as possible, given that you aren't there anymore. Individual jobs have foremen. When you have multiple jobs to run, there has to be someone who can coordinate all the details of each one into a coherent whole and manage those projects successfully and pass that information up the chain to you. That would be the guy we'll call the field superintendent.
If you are really lucky, or really good, you've got that one guy that you've groomed for this day. You've worked closely with him. You've watched him work, seen his level of preparedness and learned to rely on his judgment when you weren't there to make the decisions. You've become friends and are comfortable with each other, even to the point of having constructive disagreements. Such a relationship doesn't happen overnight. Like all good things, it grows a little at a time. Once the trust has been established and the competence has been vetted, it makes your move to an office job a little less frightening for you.
Remember, though, that even as your level of responsibility has changed, so has his. As you transition into a desk chair, your new field superintendent is transitioning into a larger role as well. Keep that in mind when you are tempted to use phrases like, “that's not how I'd have done it,” and “it's never taken that long to do ______.” Given enough time and latitude, your new field superintendent can make your move a breeze.
Some people are not comfortable with having authority and don't wield it well. We've all known folks that are killer mechanics, but don't have, or want, the responsibility of running a job or in some cases, other people. In their element they are flawless, but if you make them take on anything remotely managerial in nature, they crumble. Having a great journeyman who can make anything work is a blessing you don't want to lose. If he's the guy you think might work as a field superintendent, think again.
Conversely, there are people who might be mediocre with the tools, but who can organize the heck out of things, keep accurate and clear records, think a few steps ahead, see a problem before it becomes a problem, short circuit it and generally makes good decisions. That's your best candidate for field superintendent. If he needs to work with the tools from time to time, he can, that's the bonus. It's all about balance.
Do not be tempted to micro-manage your field after you've made the jump to the office. You're sending the wrong signals to the men you've appointed as field superintendents.
Many small companies that become middle sized companies go through the process described above. Not all survive the transition. The reasons are many, but in most cases, when the company fails, such failure can be laid at the feet of the guy who left the field, but didn't. What I mean by that is do not be tempted to micro-manage your field after you've made the jump to the office. You're sending the wrong signals to the men you've appointed as field superintendents when you countermand their instructions, interfere with their decisions and second guess them. Once you've made the moves, live with them unless there is a clear and compelling reason not to. It'll all work out in the end, and you'll be a lot happier.
The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].