Joseph A. DeMaria Jr., a University of Michigan graduate, wasn’t happy his son was attending basketball camp at rival Michigan State University. But while at the camp, the president of DeMaria Building Co. Inc. heard the coaches giving advice that DeMaria has used in both his personal and professional lives learn to listen and listen to learn. DeMaria’s listening skills have paid off; the company has more than 150 employees had 2005 revenue of $114 million. Smart Business spoke with DeMaria about how to treat employees so that they want to stay and the importance of listening.
Listen. Learn to listen. Listen to learn. It’s amazing that if you just sit back and let someone talk, you can make a good judgment on what to do. So many people want to react and be the person who will shout the loudest or be the biggest talker, and they are missing everything.
Recognize good ideas. We have a program called Opportunity for Improvement. Basically, anyone in the company, down to our lowest level of labor in the field, can submit a formal idea. We have categories such as, does it improve the company, does it save money or does it improve safety or morale?
They get DeMaria points for submitting these ideas. The better the idea, the more points they get, and they convert these points into gift cards.
It’s amazing some of the ideas we got. What we try to preach is we aren’t looking for the idea that saves us $100,000. We are looking for a small idea that makes us a little bit better.
We just want to slowly get better with these small ideas, instead of everyone looking for that grand idea that’s going to save the company all kinds of money. That never happens, and if it does, it’s rare.
It could be as simple as, ‘We have three forms to do this, and I feel we can use one form. Those other two forms are useless, yet it takes me an hour a week to do those two forms.’ We have a formal process where we have a team that implements those ideas. We’ve had this since about 1997.
Before that, someone had an idea and they’d tell their supervisor. Then, it would depend on who he would tell, and it just got nowhere. We’ll also publish the ideas [in the company newsletter]. ‘John Doe, laborer out in the field, has this great idea. Congratulations. Thanks for the idea. It really helped.’
Stop yelling. If we have the right people, we don’t have to motivate them. Our biggest challenge is how not to demotivate them. There is nothing more demotivating than to chew somebody out or call them out on the carpet.
When you’re in a team meeting, you don’t single someone out when something went wrong. We take our success and failures as a team. It’s kind of like being a coach. When they do good, they did good. When it went bad, management made a bad decision.
We also have a lessons learned e-mail. We send out e-mails without names and say, ‘This happened and was a problem, and we want everyone to learn from it.’
If you chastise or beat up someone, they aren’t going to want to stay around, or, next time, when something happens, they are going to hide it. We want to know if there is a problem so we can fix it.
Listen to employees, then act. If someone has a great idea and you take two years to implement, then next time, the guy says, ‘What’s the sense? I sent it in, and for two years I didn’t hear about it.’
When we have these ideas, some of them are not very good ideas. But, we always try to find some little piece of it that is a good idea and say, ‘Even though we can’t do this, we will do this. Thanks a lot for submitting the idea.’
We’re conscious of not saying, ‘No, that’s a bad idea.’ He’s going to say, ‘Well, I’ve submitted two ideas, and both times they gave me the thumbs down. I’m not submitting any more ideas.’
We also preach that you can’t submit a piece of paper that says, ‘I think everyone should get new desk chairs.’ Well, why? We have a whole form of what is the benefit, what will it cost the company and why is this a good idea? They have to put some thought and research into it.
Concentrate on opportunities rather than on problems. We’ve made the mistake of putting our best people on our biggest problem. Put your best people on your biggest opportunities.
Once we started doing it, we had success. We, in the past, would have a problem and throw the best people to fix that problem, and all the opportunities were suffering because of that.
If you’re losing 20 grand on a project and put your best person on it, but you have an opportunity to make $100,000 and you aren’t putting him over there, then you aren’t doing yourself justice.
You’re going to want a good problem-solver and management to get involved [on your biggest problem].
Groom for the future. Have someone behind you that is going to be good, if not better, than you when you move up. It does the company a big injustice if you are so great and you pound everybody below you down.
If you leave, get promoted or move to a different area, then have someone behind you that is going to do just as good or a better job.
Know when to say ‘no.’ I had the mentality coming out of college of bigger and bigger. If they can do it, we can do it. It’s hard to say no, but you have to say no. You have to be disciplined enough to know there are things we are just not good at and would just get ourselves in trouble.
This is our third five-year strategic planning session we are going through, and, in each one of those, we spent a lot of time focusing in on what we do best, and that’s all we are going to do. The things we aren’t good at we are staying away from.
I don’t care how great the opportunity sounds. You have to be able to say the word ‘no,’ and it’s a hard thing to do.
HOW TO REACH: DeMaria Building Co. Inc., (313) 870-2800 or www.demariabldgco.com