CWB May 2003

Building Your Work Force

Assembling the right mix of experienced employees and raw recruits can help create a productive, well-managed and cost-efficient shop team.

By Anthony Noel

Lately our focus has been on shop owners' decisions to become employers, and we left off last month with some thoughts on hiring early retirees from this or other industries - perhaps members of the baby-boom generation - as potential shop leaders or even partners.

This month we will look at several keys to building a productive, committed work force. But first, it might be a good idea to define words like "partner," "leader" and "manager" because, regardless of whether boomers eventually play a role in your company or not, their recent influence on such terms is undeniable.

Put simply, boomers pretty much took these self-explanatory words and clouded their meanings, but good.

A "manager" is someone who oversees a project or department and the people working on that project or in that department, either directly or indirectly. Despite oh-so-hip theories to the contrary offered by some "pop" management types, one cannot be one's own manager - the only exception being when one owns and operates the company single-handedly. And since we have already moved beyond that, it doesn't apply here.

"Associate" is another term that gets me and, in fact, really did get me once. For a while back in the late 1980s and early '90s, I actually started referring to my employees as "associates." But I grew out of it. I figured, if they are not happy being called employees, let 'em start their own businesses. Then they can call themselves "sultans" for all I care.

Then there's "leader." The boomer management wordsmiths really did a number on this one.

Like "manager," it seems everyone is a leader, with limitless leadership potential. Tommyrot. The first requirement of a leader is having a will to lead, and anyone who has paid any attention in a business environment for more than a couple of minutes will attest to the fact that not everyone wants a leadership role - no matter how management might try to confuse things using verbal gymnastics.

And last, but certainly not the least potentially damaging to your company, we have "partner." To me (and to most members of the judiciary), a "partner" is someone who holds a certain percentage interest in the business; a percentage with which, if the company were sold at a profit tomorrow, that person would walk away from the deal, in monetary form.

My point? No matter how management gurus might attempt to re-define them, the courts are still pretty clear on what certain words mean in a legal sense. So, unless you are Wal-Mart and have the resources to last through indefinite litigation claims involving the legal difference between words like "employee" and "associate," do yourself a favor and take the straightforward approach.

(I could go on about this. "Stakeholders." "Internal customers." "Supply partners." Maybe another time. For now, it's back to building a shop team.)

Assembling an Effective Work Force

An experienced early retiree, someone who has led people before, can be a valuable asset as you build your team, even if he is not interested in leading that team. A long-time manager who has been enticed to take early retirement can help you assess new hires' long-term potential, simply by virtue of his years of experience doing just that for his former employer.

Moreover, an early retiree with strong woodworking skills might be the best mentor a new employee ever had. That is because a retiree is likely to have both an enthusiasm for woodworking and a certain patience for training, the latter often being absent in less mature workers.

So don't limit your hiring pool. "Mature" employees can be 50-something retirees, 40-something career changers or younger workers who cared enough to pay sufficient attention early in their careers. Regardless of their ages, such concerned, invested workers will often be able to spot, from a mile away, others who show the necessary drive, enthusiasm and attention to detail to offer future potential.

At a minimum, they will give you an interesting perspective on what to sweat and what not to, even if you ultimately disagree with them. In the larger picture of team building, that is your ultimate goal; to get people on the floor who are enthusiastic and thoughtful about what they are doing, whatever it may be. Not everyone will have the drive to take a leadership role, and that's OK. In fact, that is what you are after: a balanced combination of leaders and producers.

We have a tendency in our culture to assign higher value to our leaders and managers. We certainly pay them more, because we expect more of them. But are they more valuable than the productive guy on the edgebander who never lets a bad part get by him? Are they more important than the assembler who is observant enough to double as a final inspector, ensuring that cabinets are clean and sufficiently protected for shipping?

Without low- and mid-range employees (in terms of payroll), shops can't afford to hire good managers. Something equally important to remember is that managers who are unwilling to assume leadership responsibility aren't really managing anything at all.

Whatever approach you take in building your shop team, whether you are about to hire your first employee or are revamping your chain of command, success is largely dependent upon accountability. And you cannot hold anyone accountable for anything unless they know what their responsibilities are.

That employee on the edgebander does. So, too, does that assembler. But how can you structure and convey responsibilities for positions as wide-ranging as shop foreman or project manager?

It isn't easy. But here is a pointer: Begin by defining what they are definitely NOT responsible for. If there is no sales element to the job in question, say so. If there is limited customer contact, say that. If heavy customer contact and an ability to provide excellent customer service is part of the job, spell it out.

Similarly, as owner, you have to make clear where your responsibilities fall. Otherwise you will have a tendency to jump in too quickly and take charge when you fear your managers are neglecting a certain task or responsibility, rather than holding them - and yourself - accountable to the responsibilities you have so painstakingly defined.

Without clearly defined responsibilities and a company-wide willingness to hold employees accountable to those responsibilities when they are being neglected, the goal of building an efficient, accountable shop team will remain just that: a goal, never to be fully realized.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.