Building foundations Featured

7:00pm EDT February 24, 2008
As a child, Millard Choate worked in the lumberyard at a building supply company in Nashville and witnessed how owner Flem Smith Sr. treated his employees — regardless of job or title — with dignity and respect.

“Despite being well-to-do and all that, the reason I admired him was he embodied the people focus of the business,” Choate says.

When Choate was 12, he began cutting Smith’s massive lawn. Some days he got more than a sweat-filled workout when Smith would come home for lunch and he and his wife would sit and talk with Choate.

“They would take time out of their day to talk to a 12-year-old kid, and then going forward with advice, with coaching and showed an interest,” Choate says. “I’ve never forgotten that.”

The care the couple showed made Choate continue working for them through his teenage years.

“I enjoyed learning from them,” Choate says. “He was a very successful businessperson who didn’t let it go to their head. So many people let it go to their head, and egos run amok. If you can be successful and yet keep grounded in what got you there and the people that got you there and faith in God, I think that’s what I admire most.”

Now as founder and president of Choate Construction Co., he tries to emulate the behavior he witnessed as a child and the care he experienced as a teen with his own people. He says that people are critical to success, so if he doesn’t get the right ones and then motivate them and respectfully help them improve, then they’ll become complacent. If that happens, then his business stops growing, so it’s crucial to maintain that people focus.

“Our No. 1 production units are human beings, our professionals,” Choate says. “You have to stay close to it.”

Hire the right people

Choate evaluates potential employees on a few characteristics. He obviously wants people with integrity, but he also wants candidates with solid people skills.

“Everyone is basically in sales because everyone is trying to get someone to do what they want them to do,” he says. “How good are they at persuasion? How good are they at getting people to want to help them?”

He also looks for people who have the ability to eventually make good decisions on their own and exude intelligence.

“Basic, innate intelligence means the capacity,” Choate says. “That doesn’t mean experience right off the bat, but intelligence is the capacity to learn and develop.”

On top of those, he wants people with experience. Despite knowing what he wants, actually evaluating these attributes can prove difficult.

“Anybody can look good in an interview,” Choate says. “They key is to just ask. We try to develop some intuitive questions that we can ask people and gauge their response.”

For example, he may ask questions surrounding personal ethics or those of the company, such as what the person would do upon receiving confidential information not intended for him or her or if he or she received a payment greater than necessary.

He also asks about hobbies, interests and passions to gauge the intensity of the response and the candidate’s verbal expression skills.

“After all, 90 percent of our success comes from the ability to communicate one’s message, need or request,” Choate says.

Despite background checks, psychological analysis and having multiple people interview, in the end, he says, it simply comes down to those little voices speaking to you in your head.

Once, when Choate was interviewing people for an assistant position, he thought one candidate was energetic, sharp and just excellent all around. Despite all this, something just seemed a little off with either the person’s character or sophistication level. Whatever that something was, he brushed it aside and told himself it was trivial.

“I brought the person on and wish I had given the little indication more credence than I did because it turned out to be true,” Choate says.

He says that many people brush off their gut instincts, but those are some of the most important feelings you should use when hiring people.

“Trust your instincts, and don’t just gloss over what seems an insignificant indication — really analyze that and explore that a little further before you make that final decision,” Choate says.

If you truly can’t make a decision about how important a vibe is, have one or two other people also interview that person and get their input.

Throughout interviewing and the feelings you get about different candidates, Choate also advises to not move too quickly. By hiring the assistant he had a red flag about without fully exploring it, it cost him time in needing to hire someone else.

“Typically, a manager is looking to bring someone on because we’ve grown or are expanding, and we have a definite need, and, usually, that need is now,” Choate says. “The temptation is almost to want to subconsciously have that candidate be successful because that takes care of the immediate need. ... Don’t let that be the overriding influence. Even though it makes sense now, in the long haul, it’ll cost you.”

Motivate your team

When one of Choate’s managers came to him expressing that he was in a rut and needed to be invigorated, Choate knew he had to recommit to motivating his people to ignite the sparks in them.

“You have to keep people enthused and pumped up,” Choate says. “Otherwise you’re not going to get the maximum return.”

Enthusiasm starts with you. Choate passes along his excitement for his people by calling each of his 450 employees on their birthdays to wish them a good day.

While time-consuming, he says it’s an investment in them and sets an example for his managers.

“Show people what they have to do,” Choate says. “Enthusiasm is infectious. I’m a type A, and I like to go after things with as much gusto as I can, and I like my managers to do the same thing. You meet with people and talk to them, and they’re all different characters and personalities, so not everyone is going to be overtly excited and running through the walls. There’s quiet personalities, but even quiet personalities, in their own way, get pumped up and enthusiastic.”

One way to get people excited is to give them control of part of their destiny by providing a base salary and making part of their income tied to their performance. This incentivizes them to work harder to reach those additional financial rewards and shows them how their work affects the business.

“People realize their position, and they realize they’re of value to the company, and above all, that they’re proud of what they’re doing,” Choate says.

Beyond financial rewards, strive to create a family atmosphere. Instead of working to build one large team environment, Choate instead promotes smaller groups so that people can become closer and feel more connected to the people they’re around most.

“That develops a person-to-person relationship and just helps promote a sense of family,” Choate says.

Then these close-knit groups can plan social events or form recreational sports teams.

“That helps build teamwork and build relationships internally,” Choate says.

The more teamwork you have, the more productive your company will be.

Push for performance

Even with the best and most enthusiastic people, sometimes employees do things wrong, so it’s important to help them improve.

“If a person is a keeper, you want to help them develop and improve and excel,” Choate says. “Some of our best people, by far, are ones who may have, at one point in time in their development, struggled or hit a flat spot. By demonstrating our commitment that we want them to be successful, it’s amazing how it motivates them, inspires them, and now they’re some of our best production people. It’s really a people skill and an investment.”

Having metrics in place that are important to your business are a given. Beyond that, you have to know your employees.

“A manager simply has to invest time in that person, has to get to know that person,” Choate says. “Go to lunch with that person or visit them in the field. Spend time with that person. Talk to them. What do they like to do? ‘What did you do this weekend? What’s your pet peeve on a project or job or position? How do you see things? What do you think we can do better?’”

Knowing your employees helps you communicate with them in the most effective manner.

“Everyone has to be treated very specially,” Choate says. “Everyone has to be treated on a custom basis and addressed on a custom basis because which buttons you push or how you do it can be very productive or extremely counterproductive if it’s not done the right way. It just all depends on the individual. There’s no magic there. You just got to know the person.”

While people respond in different ways, one thing that shouldn’t be different from person to person is how you communicate your message.

Choate was once alarmed to overhear a manager speaking in a demeaning tone to a subcontractor on the phone.

“I told our manager, ‘This guy isn’t going to make it. He has to realize that whoever he’s talking to isn’t going to be motivated to make a change or please this guy,’” Choate says. “It’s important that you do it in a proper way so people understand the benefits of it, and you don’t alienate the person and their push back is not there.”

When communicating problems, speak firmly, yet calmly and clearly, and avoid raising your voice. Doing this ensures you don’t speak down to someone.

“Address deficiencies straightforward and without any reticence,” Choate says. “You can hone any knife sharper, so there’s always ways to improve yourself as well as others, so when someone is not performing, you address it clearly, you outline it, you structure it. Say, ‘Here was the expectation, the requirement. Here is where it didn’t occur, and here are the results of the nonperformance or the noncompliance.’ Then you illustrate what that does, whether it’s an economic loss or a reputation loss or whatever the impact was.”

Doing these things to help employees improve helps them buy in to your ideas and trust you as a leader.

“Treat that person with respect and that transfers,” Choate says. “In any leadership position, there has to be an inherent sense of humility. I think anybody that thinks, ‘I got here all because of what I did,’ is a person pretty much delusional or misled. Anyone has been successful because he helped put together a team, but the team as a group is what made the group successful, so humility is very important.”

Choate keeps that humility and team focus at the forefront of his thoughts. Despite starting the company himself from his basement 19 years ago, Choate is quick to note his team has gotten him to the $675 million in 2006 revenue and the projected $850 million in revenue for 2007. And as long as they collectively stay motivated and maintain a sense of urgency by not settling for the status quo, those numbers will continue

“You can spend all the money you want on computers and back-hoes and systems, but if you don’t have people out there leading the charge, you’re not going to be successful.”

HOW TO REACH: Choate Construction Co., (678) 892-1200 or www.choateco.com