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Lean Building Blog: How to get ahead in home building by really trying

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Lean Building Blog: How to get ahead in home building by really trying

May 24, 2012

My son Tyler (second of 4 children), age 29, is taking a new position with a homebuilder after having two good building industry jobs in the past, both of which vanished in the housing recession. Despite the previous disappointments, he sees this as a great opportunity with a real chance to grow with a good company. It got me thinking about all the work I have done in my career, where I did well, where I screwed up, who I have hired, who I have fired, and all the people I have watched soar and those I have seen flame out. I decided to make a list for him of what it takes to succeed and get promoted in the building industry (even though he did not ask.) I have by no means excelled at all of these points but I hope it will be useful to Tyler and perhaps it will be useful to someone else you know coming back to our beleaguered industry.

1. Want the job. Really want the job, not just accept this position as a prelude or stepping stone to something or somewhere else. As you prepare for (or dream about) your next big move, never forget you were hired to do this job, for this company, right now.

2. Deliver beyond expectations. Every day when you go to work, ask yourself what the boss and the company expects today, and resolve to do at least one thing every day that goes beyond that expectation. That’s what gets noticed. Surprise people. Ask for more work whenever possible. Seize any opportunity to learn something new.

3. Always position your great ideas for change and making things better in the perspective of “we” rather than an “I” or “me” perspective. Not “you guys need to do this” but rather, “we need to do this.” It makes a world of difference on how people see you – as a collaborator for continual improvement vs. someone who considers themself superior, trying to get ahead. Putting your ideas in the form of questions helps a lot. Instead of declaring “This is broken, we have to do this …” try, “This isn’t working as well as it could, what would you think if we tried …?”

4. Never be the snipe, the snitch, the mole or the whiner. It is right and good to recognize where, how and why the company could do things better, but not to carp to your colleagues and friends  about what idiots and fools your bosses, peers, subordinates, suppliers or trades are – even if at times they may be. 98% of those around you want to do their best, even if on this day, on this issue, they may be confused or seemingly just plain dumb. Remember that. Just keep working to help see a better way and realize almost every broken process or bureaucratic fiasco had its roots in an idea someone really thought would help. Deal with it, and then try to change it when you can.

5. Avoid the politicians and don’t become one. Yes, there are those who get ahead by being shrewd pickers and manipulators of relationships, cozying up to power and always considering first, “what’s in it for me.”  Don’t be “that guy.” Sometimes they do reach high places and it will frustrate the hell out of you, but everyone sees through it but the politician himself, who thinks he is fooling everyone. Meanwhile he chants the mantra, “It’s just business,” as a way to absolve himself from self-loathing. Preserving your soul is more important. Maintain your integrity. Money cannot buy honor or dignity.

6. “Grace under pressure” is perhaps the most underrated skill anyone can possess. All yelling & screaming, all intimidation has its source in insecurity. Just don’t go there. Think about your Mom. Do you know anyone with more personal power? In 29 years, how many times have you ever heard her raise her voice to anyone, let alone to her 4 children even with a husband so often away? She always gets what she wants (and that is virtually always the right thing.) How does she do that? Think about “Grandpa Dusty” – a full Colonel who flew hundreds of combat missions, commanded entire squadrons and had the total respect and loyalty of his men. At his 85th birthday party, one of the men in his command told me, “Dusty never raised his voice. He didn’t have to. He never asked us to do anything he would not do himself and he always had our backs – so we always had his. We’d walk through a wall of fire for him. Hell, we flew through walls of fire for him.”

7. If you work for a private company, respect the entrepreneur(s) who founded the business. Working for entrepreneurs is totally different than working for corporations. It’s their money. It’s their butt that’s on the line. They cannot just walk away, leaving a pile of crap in someone else’s hands. It can make them a bit paranoid and even irrational at times, but it also makes them easily the greatest innovators and always the most fun to work for. They are right far more often than they are wrong, or they would not have survived. So when at times you just don’t understand their thinking, be patient. There is usually method to their madness. Sure, you could lose your job, but they could lose everything they own. As Stephen Covey said, “Seek first to understand.”

8. If you work for the big corporation, remember that your boss has to deal with the fact that despite whatever glorious statements about “our people” you may find in the annual report, the shareholders care about one thing only – quarterly return. That’s where all the money came from to grow and expand – the promise of return – and there is no way to escape it. That is the reality for the company, the boss and ultimately for you. You will become angry over some of the things you have to do to “feed the beast” and there is continual suboptimization that goes on in the process.  But that same beast (aka capitalism) is what made this country not just the most powerful, but the most influential and by a fair composite of measures, the best country on the planet. Even those who aggressively criticize us know that without the U.S., Hitler and Tojo would have won and your generation would toil today as virtual slaves. Big money capitalism is rampant with inefficiencies, but it is still far better than the next best system anyone has devised. Respect that, even on the days it makes you crazy. Just resolve to keep learning. As long as you maintain enough sense to sort the good from the bad and don’t get sucked up in the politics, a big company is a good place to learn.

9. Without sacrificing your family, be willing to be inconvenienced. Be keen to have your schedule thrown up in the air to help a colleague in need or take care of an important issue, especially if it is for a customer. Then don’t complain or call attention to it. Everyone knows who stepped up. Everyone knows who went the extra mile. (Caveat: If you are consistently being asked to do this with no concern for your family, start looking for another company to work with.)

10. Stay “glass half full” even when you feel mentally, emotionally and physically empty over whatever is going on with work. Be the “never say die” guy. Be the one who grabs whatever assets you can muster for any challenge and resolve to somehow get the job done. If it were easy, anyone could do it, and how would you stand out? Then resolve to invoke continual improvement so next time you can get the job done without the collateral damage. Don’t just let it lie for others to fall into the same trap.

11. Honor the field and those who build the houses. I have no patience for managers who show no respect for those who toil away in the trenches every day turning out the product, and neither should you. Whether they are the builder’s superintendents and warranty managers, the foremen for the myriad of trades working on the sites or the everyday labor that hauls the mortar to the masons or the shingles up to the roofers, they all have their story. They all have a family. They all care, or at least want to, if given the opportunity and shown the way. Be that person who supports them in any possible way you can conjure, and you will be repaid 10 times over.

12. Remember the lessons of the downturn. Stay within your means. Don’t always go for the quick-hit profit play. When drawn to a bright light, it is easy to be blinded by it. As I contemplate this one, I find myself compelled to write an entire article on the lessons of the downturn, which I will. So stay tuned. Meanwhile, pay cash for everything possible, avoid credit cards like the plague, do NOT buy all they house you can afford and live on 80% of your income. Find time for the dog. Cherish Rachel. Be thankful for the gifts God has given you. Pray for peace and health. Never forget your family and the ones who love you. What else really matters?

The industry is opening up again. We have clients all over the country who report YTD sales up 20 to 50 percent, with two up more than 100 percent. So many left the industry and builders are understandably reluctant to hire again until they know the turnaround is real. Yet tremendous opportunity is opening up again in homebuilding. I have been at this for a very long time, and I know that my son or any new recruit who follows the advice above will find their opportunities virtually limitless. Best of luck to you Tyler – and all those who decide to return to this industry. We need you. We expect you to be smarter than we were. Good to have you back.

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