Jim Smith saw the growth that was going on at Elford Inc. This wasn’t the general contracting business that Edward “Pop” Elford started back in 1910 with $153.75 out of his savings account. It’s a company that has invested more than 15 million hours on construction since its inception.
In the last decade alone, Elford has built more than 13 hospitals in Central Ohio and the company continues to build its presence in the region in 2010. This growth has created a complex array of projects that, if not handled properly, could easily become difficult to coordinate.
“We not only grew in size, but we also grew in some of the areas we cover for our customers,” says Smith, the company’s president and chief operating officer. “We end up working with new team players as in our subcontractors and our vendors. How do you keep the communication current? How do you keep everybody feeling part of the HQ and part of the home team and not feeling disenfranchised?”
If each of his 240 employees came into the same office every day, Smith could just issue a morning message to everyone all at once. He could then go about the rest of his day reasonably confident that they knew what he expected out of them.
But when one team is out working on the Riverside Methodist Hospital project in Columbus and another is busy planning the Springfield Regional Cancer Center project, it’s not that simple.
How do you make sure all of your employees are getting the information that either they need or that you need them to have when they’re scattered about on various job sites?
“What it’s taken is a little higher level of intentional focus on communications and keeping everybody in the loop as far as what we’re doing and why we’re doing certain things,” Smith says. “We’ve empowered everybody in the organization with as much knowledge as possible so the mission and values are felt from top to bottom and bottom to top.”
It’s not always easy, but Smith says it’s his job to make sure things are getting done throughout his company. It’s also his job to know when to use resources and make sure he doesn’t become a micromanager.
Here’s how Smith strikes the right balance to make sure Elford meets the needs of its customers.
Get them ready
One of your most important responsibilities as a leader is to remove obstacles that make it harder for your employees to do their jobs. Lack of knowledge or lack of proper training is certainly an obstacle and so it’s your job to make sure they are prepared for different scenarios.
“We’ve gotten better over time allowing people to mature in their roles and to build confidence in themselves,” Smith says. “If you put people in situations way before they are prepared, you don’t allow them that ability. Their confidence isn’t yet there. If you don’t have the support system built in, you’re letting them down as a leader. … Our job is to make sure the support system and the resources are in place and to set direction and align and provide the necessary resources for everybody to be successful.”
It starts with making sure you have the right people in the right positions with the right amount of training.
“Then you have to make sure you continually develop them,” Smith says. “I don’t care what business you are in. I don’t care what seat you are in. You can never be finished with the learning process. It’s having our guys step back and understand what they can control and having the wherewithal to adapt when things do change. They know that change is inevitable and that things are going to happen that they had no way to affect because it was out of their control.”
One of the biggest challenges in the construction business is the coordination of schedules for various tasks that need to be done with multiple projects in a short time frame.
When those situations occur, Smith doesn’t want his people wandering around wondering what to do next. He wants each person to know what his or her role is so the process can operate smoothly. So he makes sure his employees have a chance to run through those scenarios and see what works best.
“We stage these events called kaizens,” Smith says. “That’s a cross-departmental team that comes together from job sites and it’s a number of the job contractors that come together and we get to the meat of the matter and cut any excess out of the process. That whole lean process is to minimize the steps it takes to get to an outcome. It’s all about improving your processes.”
You have to do the prep work up front so you know what needs to be done with a project. Then you need to be able to convey that knowledge to your people and put them in a position to deal with it successfully.
“We are only successful here when the team works well together and understands one another,” Smith says. “They have to be honest with one another. If one department is not supporting another or an individual isn’t hitting the expectation, we have to be honest. We’re doing them a favor in the short term and the organization in the long term and the customer a favor all the time.”
Use your resources
So how does a leader avoid getting burned out with the responsibility of managing so many tasks and trying to keep employees moving cohesively to accomplish a given task?
“First of all, don’t look at it as a burden,” Smith says. “You look at it as an opportunity to provide the ability for so many people to succeed at what they do. In doing that, you have to be very intentional as far as how you set up departments or divisions and then within those departments and divisions, the processes and procedures and how they all act so that the machine does work smooth.”
There is a difference between being a driving force who micromanages every detail and a driving force who delegates and uses your resources to effectively and efficiently complete tasks.
“If you take it all on yourself and you don’t delegate, then it will be a burden,” Smith says. “Proper delegation is the absolute key because then it empowers everybody to grow and succeed at what they do.”
How do you deal with all of the responsibility? You handle what you can and accept that you are the leader, but you also accept that you can’t do it all alone. You understand that it’s not a sign of weakness to delegate important tasks to other people. It’s a sign of strength to know when you need a little help and being willing to ask for it.
“Put the shoe on the other foot and say regardless of what’s going on, wouldn’t you make the time if that person called you?” Smith says. “I think you know the answer is yes, you would. You can seek opinion. You can seek counsel, but you are still the decision-maker. Receiving feedback is a great thing.”
It really comes down to being able to look at a situation and admit there are some areas in which you need help.
“You have to be able to look deep inside at how you’re working, how you’re sharing and not be afraid to face those bad situations,” Smith says. “You have to be able to recognize when you’re not hitting the mark. The key is putting them on the board and dealing with them and not saying, ‘Well, we’ll take care of that later.’
“Procrastination on those types of things is the absolute worst thing you can do. When you do that, it gets worse. … If you’re going to expect different results as you grow and go forward, you can’t just keep doing the same things over and over. If you’re doing the same things over and over, your results are either going to stay the same or get worse.”
Drive the process
Out in the field at a construction site, it’s the project manager or project superintendent that makes sure everything is running smoothly.
“Those are the positions that are out on the front line leading the process,” Smith says. “That’s the leadership team that has to deal with weather changes on a daily basis, materials that might show up early or late, or manpower that might show up early or late. They have to be, and they are, very skilled at having a plan.”
Smith isn’t managing a construction project. He’s managing a business that manages many different construction projects. But the dynamics of ensuring that everybody is marching to the same beat can be quite similar for either effort.
“We have to be the hub that keeps everything moving,” Smith says of a leader. “We have to drive the process. We advance the progress of a project versus just administering it and recording history. People want to know what’s going on. When people know what’s going on, whether it’s good or bad, they are more at ease with their task and the stress goes away.”
Smith ultimately views his role as that of stress reliever.
“The pressure of getting things done doesn’t go away,” Smith says. “I look at it as relieving stress from our people. Stress is when you’re not prepared. You feel stress when you’re not prepared.”
Smith says his job is to make sure his people are prepared and that they have the information they need to do their jobs. It’s also to make it clear that he is a person they can rely on as the source of that valuable information whenever they need it.
“It’s keeping people out of the mindset of being task-oriented and keeping the big picture of why we’re doing what we’re doing,” Smith says. “That’s one of the things we talk about a lot here. ‘Why do you come into work every day? Why do you come to the job site? Why do you come to the home office? What are you going to accomplish that day?’ We spend a lot of time talking about our core purpose. ‘What is our core purpose?’ Our core purpose is to make construction a positive experience.
“It’s extremely important to be really clear in the performance expectations of each position. If we are clear as leaders in explaining to everybody what expectations are and where their boundaries are, before they are underwater, they know they can raise their hand and ask for help or ask for suggestions. We tell people all the time that is a strength.”
You need to prepare and you need to be out in front of your employees in order to fill that role of driving your project or driving your business or driving whatever it is you’re trying to drive.
“That individual can see the end and can see the outcome, no matter what stage the project is in versus the person that is working day to day and hour to hour,” Smith says. “They have to be able to see the end at any point and how they are going to get there. The only way you can do that is by being prepared. What that means is knowing the job, knowing the people and knowing the schedule. It’s back to one of our core values, which is work smart, work hard.”
You need to make the time to prepare yourself to know these things and make time to be available to your people when they need you.
“Your job as a leader is to serve the people that report to you,” Smith says. “You’ve got to make yourself available to them. Not to be their answer machine, that’s not what you want. But you have to be there for support and guidance and counseling. If they’re coming to you for every answer and you’re solving all of their problems, you’re not doing your job as the leader.”
HOW TO REACH: Elford Inc., (614) 488-4000 or www.elford.com