Building a crew: Tips to finding and keeping good help

– By Mark Ward –
In the field of management science, the concept of “organizational socialization” describes how employees progress through three phases—anticipation, encounter, and metamorphosis—as they transition from newcomers to valued veterans.

“My responsibilities cover all three phases,” relates Jimmy Terry, crew developer and trainer for FBi Buildings, a post-frame contractor in Remington, Indiana. “I’m involved in recruiting and getting out the message that our company is a desirable place to work. Then I handle new employee orientation and, after that, conduct ongoing training so that our crew members can grow and achieve their potential.”

At FMI Corporation of Raleigh, North Carolina, a management consulting firm for the construction and engineering industries, senior consultant Bryan Kucinski has helped clients work through each phase. “It begins by articulating your company ‘brand’ and why you’re a great place to work,” he explains. “Then once people come aboard, training doesn’t stop with passing along information during orientation. Nor does it stop with teaching job skills. The goal is behavior change so that the employee becomes engaged with your company and its culture.”

Successfully navigating the phases of employee socialization, Terry and Kucinski agree, is a demographic necessity. “The Baby Boom generation will mostly retire in the next decade,” reports Terry, “and Generation X will be right behind. After that, we’re down to the Millennial Generation—and they’re not attracted to working in a trade such as construction. So if we don’t recruit and develop our share of young people now, our industry’s future will be in doubt.”

Rural builders may be tempted, Terry adds, “to think that, since the economy is down and lots of people are looking for construction jobs, then why put effort into employee development? Can’t crews be easily replaced? But construction isn’t just a product, it’s also a service. Your crews are constantly interacting with customers. It pays to develop the people who represent you. They’re your biggest assets.”

Kucinski concurs that “the current situation of three generations working together—Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials—won’t last forever. Millennials are the future of our industry. But having grown up with the Internet, they expect things to happen at the speed of light. So if they don’t see a path in your company to growth and promotion, they’ll be gone.”

Phase 1: Anticipation
Employee development starts long before newcomers are put on the payroll. “The process actually begins by hiring the right people—that is, the people who are a right fit for the culture of your organization and who are therefore promotable,” states Kucinski. “Yet even that presupposes you know what your culture is and what you want it to be.”
Construction contractors have traditionally defaulted to a “let’s get it done” culture. “But if you want to recruit and retain good employees, especially Millennials, then the days of ‘just grab a set of plans and build it’ must end,” continues Kucinski. “For one, the trend in delivering construction projects is moving toward design/build and other methods where the various parties cooperate. So you can’t afford a ‘Lone Ranger’ culture. You want a team environment. Then for another, Millennials are more attracted to a team culture where they can have input.”

Because rural builders tend to be smaller organizations, notes Kucinski, “Relationships are more linear and direct, rather than hierarchical. And having a ‘flat hierarchy’ actually gives you an opportunity to cultivate a ‘family’ atmosphere with a sense of purpose, integrity, and fairness that can be attractive to many employees and induce them to stay long-term.”

The management literature on organizational culture is vast. Corporate Cultures, one of the first books published on the subject, held that “strong organizations” have values appropriate to their business environment, heroes who exemplify those values, rituals that celebrate those values, and a network of people who communicate those values. Another classic, In Search of Excellence, argued that “excellent organizations” cultivate a respectful and positive atmosphere, avoid too much complexity in structure and staffing, allow employees to voice new ideas and take risks, and promote unity of purpose while encouraging diversity for innovation.

Company leaders foster such a culture through six common-sense mechanisms: what they focus on, how they respond to critical events, how they allocate resources, what behaviors they consciously or unconsciously model, what they reward and punish, and who they hire and promote. Ideally, a company’s stated values and its “unwritten rules” align so that managers and workers behave in ways that reflect the desired values.
These dynamics are evident at FBi Buildings where Terry’s recruitment efforts are boosted by his company’s commitment to a positive culture. “Hiring the kind of employees who can be developed into great team members,” he says, starts at the anticipatory phase when “potential recruits say to themselves, ‘That would be a good place to work.’”

Terry makes recruitment visits to colleges and universities throughout the Midwest. His message is simple but effective: “We want to hire good people and hang onto them. So we make a promise. We’re not just offering you a job, but a career. Our goal is to empower you. That commitment starts at the top and goes across the organization. It says a lot when I take along an employee who’s an alumnus of that college and he tells potential recruits about our culture.”

Phase 2: Encounter
New hires likewise encounter FBi Buildings’ commitment to empowering employees when they attend orientation. This summer the company is opening a 1,600 square-foot training center and launching a new way to help newcomers learn the ropes.

“When people feel good about their jobs, they do better—and that starts when they come on board,” explains Terry. “Builders traditionally train new employees by sending them out with existing crews. But put yourself in the new person’s shoes. The crew is already performing well and so you feel like a fifth wheel. It’s intimidating.”

Instead, new employees at FBi Buildings will first be spending time in the training center, working on actual buildings in a controlled and supervised environment. “It’s going to build their confidence,” Terry believes, “so that, when they do start going out with a real crew, they’ll feel good about themselves and do a better job.”

One impetus for the new approach is something Terry learned from exit interviews with departing employees. “Most new hires who last beyond the first few weeks end up staying with us long-term,” he reports. “Thus, most of our turnover happens within those early weeks. And while our turnover rate is below industry averages, we found that about 15 percent of the people who left us felt we hadn’t given them enough training.”

Too often, orientation of new employees emphasizes what Kucinski calls only the first two levels of training. At the first and most basic level, training programs impart information about company policies and procedures. Then at the second level, job skills are taught. “And that’s where many training programs stop,” he cautions. “Since skills are actionable and results are measurable then, as they say, ‘What gets measured gets done.’”

But Kucinski advises that the third level of training is just as important. “It’s what I call the ‘adhesion’ level where new behaviors are grafted on to employees,” he relates. “Leadership development is an obvious example of training that inculcates new behaviors. But with all your workforce—from orientation onward—you want people who are engaged. Employees who have a sense of purpose and feel a part of something bigger than themselves are integral to your sustainability and profitability.”

Thus, Terry and Kucinski agree that managers involved in the training of both new and experienced employees must think on two levels: What is the best way to impart information? And what is the best way to change behaviors so that employees reach the “metamorphosis” phase to become fully functioning and valued members of the team?

Phase 3: Metamorphosis
Corporate trainers the world over debate the best methods for teaching and employee learning. Kucinski believes the answer to that question begins with the employee rather than the trainer. “Each employee is different in personality and learning style,” he counsels. Employers might consider having employees take a self-assessment questionnaire such as the well-known Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. “You can increase the effectiveness of your training,” he adds, “if you know what motivates a person—achievement, advancement, recognition, responsibility?”

Terry concurs that an effective trainer “is a good listener who learns about each employee and his or her learning style, and then fits the training to that style—whether it’s using a lecture with PowerPoint, or a hands-on exercise, or time with a computer simulator.”
Nevertheless, Terry believes that trainers can be guided by certain universals. “Spend time on the ‘why’ question,” he advises. “If employees understand why a given policy or procedure is expected, then the rest will follow.”

Further, while critiques from supervisors and peers are valuable, allowing employees to critique themselves is a uniquely powerful training tool. FBi Buildings installs video cameras not only at its training center but also on job sites—not to spy on crew members, but so they review their own performance. “I call it Operation Game Film,” says Terry. “Like a football coach, I put together ‘game films’ for our trainees and crews to watch and learn from.”

As for the best ways to change behaviors and foster engaged employees, here too advice is varied. “One key, however, is high ‘emotional intelligence’ or the ability of a leader—and a trainer must be a leader—to perceive and respond to emotion,” says Kucinski. “Another key is knowing the difference between a ‘manager’ and a ‘leader.’ A manager only transacts work with employees: ‘If you do this, I’ll do that.’ But a leader strives to transform employees.”

Management science has long moved past the idea that some people are “born leaders.” Instead, organizations are advised to understand how certain “leadership styles” correlate to certain “followership styles.” Leaders must learn to adjust their leadership style to the skill level and motivation of employees. Sometimes task-related guidance is needed most, while at other times a relational approach is more productive.

One leading model categorizes followership styles along two dimensions: engagement (active or passive) and thinking (independent/critical or dependent/uncritical). Employees are classed as either passive (passive engagement and uncritical thinking), conformist (active and uncritical), alienated (passive and critical), or exemplary (active and critical). Fostering the latter, in order to cultivate employees who are actively engaged and who think independently and critically, should be the goal of every organization.

“An aspect of empowering your employees is, in a sense, that they all become leaders, even if only at the level of self-leadership,” states Terry. Toward that end, he continues, “I find that my biggest challenge as crew developer is to get new hires through their first year. That starts with me being transparent and establishing a bond of trust with new employees. Then after that first year, once you’ve built that bond, employees can start reaching toward their potential.”

FBi Buildings creates ways, both large and small, for employees to metamorphose into valued team members. “Our culture—which starts with a commitment from the top—is for employees to take ownership of what they do,” Terry reports. “We seek ways for them to feel included by giving them input on policies and procedures that directly affect them.”
The company has a variety of steering committees and regularly staffs them with crew people who have low seniority, as well as managers. A recent example is a committee on fall protection that included executives, managers, and laborers in equal proportions.
Moreover, FBi Buildings has created a culture in which “people know that if they’re promotable, we will promote them—even if we sometimes have to make ‘room’ for them somewhere. But that’s better than losing them,” attests Terry.

One of Terry’s initiatives is an annual leadership development course to which he invites half a dozen young crew members. “They’re invited because they’ve shown the skills, aptitude, or desire to take the next step in their careers with us,” he explains. “We ask them what training they need to advance—whether it’s how to supervise people, how to use an iPad, or how to build a horse barn. Sometimes what they need are the ‘soft’ people skills, but other times it’s technical skills. So we put them in situations to practice what they feel they need to learn.”

These employees, believes Terry, exemplify the ideal of team members who have “reached the point of saying, ‘I want to be with this company long-term. I’m all in!”
Whether employees attend leadership training or not, however, development is ongoing. FBi Buildings conducts an annual employee review process. For new employees, the process can lead to quarterly wage increases for the first 15 months of employment. And while increases for managers are considered once a year, says Terry, “non-management employees don’t always have to wait that long.”

The company strives to conduct annual reviews in a way that is individualized and yet conforms to fair standards for all. “We use a ‘competency log’ to build metrics on each crew member—their productivity, their safety record, the quality of their work as indicated by the number of customer callbacks,” explains Terry. “So while the review is conducted fairly via metrics, we can also customize a development plan for each employee.”

Such an approach illustrates, says Kucinski, a bottom-line principle of employee training and development. “It has to be an ongoing process,” he counsels, “and not just, ‘Go attend a two-day seminar’ or “Here’s a video to watch.’ The resources are out there for even a small builder to have a great training program—whether it’s computer-based training, resources from your industry association, or onsite training from companies like ours. The point is that employee development must be continuous, which means your commitment must also be continuous.” RB

Mark Ward Sr., a frequent contributor to Rural Builder, is an assistant professor in organizational and business communication at the University of Houston-Victoria.

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