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Building blocks Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2009

Mike Dilts wants employees to know what’s happening at Shiel Sexton Co. Inc. He wants them to see themselves as an important part of the company’s future.

But it has to be about more than just tossing your people a bone once in awhile to make them happy.

“Where you get into trouble is when people think they are collaborative, but it is actually more of a dictatorship,” says Dilts, the company’s president and chief operating officer. “They allow some delegation, but they pull the rug out from under those people when they think it’s going in a direction they don’t like. You have to truly be collaborating at every level all the time.”

When Dilts interviewed with CEO Andy Shiel 23 years ago, the first thing Shiel talked about was the healthy workplace culture he wanted to develop at the contractor firm.

“It’s a place where you feel like, ‘I’m a part of this, and it’s important for me to be here,’” Dilts says.

Dilts and Shiel have worked hard to develop an environment at Shiel Sexton where employees are constantly reminded that they do matter, whether they are an applicant being brought in for an interview or a respected veteran being asked to put their knowledge and experience to use.

“Allow people to make decisions and stand behind those,” Dilts says. “When we delegate, we don’t mean delegate up to a certain level. We mean delegate, and, ‘It’s your responsibility to take that thing from soup to nuts.’ We have to support that.”

Shiel Sexton has grown from $182 million in 2006 revenue to $254 million for 2008. Here’s how the 400-employee company has succeeded by always making personnel development a top priority.

Talk about what you want

Bringing in new employees and getting them acclimated to your work environment is one of the greatest challenges you face as a leader. It requires that you have a strong HR component that is acutely tuned in to your company’s needs.

“That’s their job every day to seek talent and make sure that talent aligns itself with your organization,” Dilts says. “Just like our sales, we try to get our whole team looking outside of here for talent. You have to keep your antenna up and you look around and say, ‘Who is a good person?’”

Your HR people need to know what their role is and be in constant communication with the company leadership to maintain this connectivity.

“They have to be intimate with what the heads of operations, group managers and project managers need, both in training and in the type of people that fit in to systems,” Dilts says. “They have to network, just like someone in business development. Only instead of looking at projects, they need to be looking at people. What are the best programs out there that produce good product managers? Where are the best field managers? We educate a lot, and that’s a big part of getting people into our ecosystem the way we like them.”

So how do you make that education happen so your HR people know what you’re looking for in terms of personnel? You start by maintaining open lines of communication and making time for productive dialogue.

“I spend a lot of time with [HR] trying to get the pulse of what motivates our people, what keeps them here, what we need to do to train them and how we best invest money and where we are going to go to find more good people,” Dilts says. “We have that conversation, if not daily, it’s a weekly conversation.”

If you want the people you have tasked with finding new employees to get the right people, they need to know what you’re looking for. They need to see that you are willing to take the time, that you value their expertise in finding people and that you have confidence they can get the job done.

“We have to trust our people to say, ‘I think this person would be a good person to have next to me in the foxhole,’” Dilts says. “I would trust their judgment. You have to train people a little bit and that’s a tough thing to do because it takes a lot of time. We have some people who are better at it than others. But we’re trying to involve as many people in this company as possible [when] hiring people.”

When a bad hire is made, as happens at any company, don’t view it as a problem.

“As painful as it is, having them in your company and then having to let them go probably makes your process even better,” Dilts says. “You can’t be afraid of taking some chances. You can’t have all of the same suit. Different talents, if done properly, lead yourself to a balance and to a more diverse company in terms of how you look at problems. It’s pretty easy to get all of one kind in a business, one personality, one skill set. When you do that, you start narrowing yourself and narrowing your opportunities to grow.”

Get employees what they need

When it comes to developing the talent you have in your company, you need to have a plan. Employees need to have a role in figuring out what types of training programs would help them do their jobs better.

“They know what is going to make them more efficient and where they are lacking,” Dilts says.

Shiel Sexton uses an external firm to survey its employees and gather feedback about what they feel would help them in their work.

“Since we use an outside service and we’re not here conducting our own survey, we get feedback that is more honest,” Dilts says. “We take that feedback and share it with them. We act on their issues. They see it’s not just the same old, same old. … We’ve said, ‘Look, this is an issue, and we’re going to do something about it.’ We call that out and make it part of our state of the company address.”

In addition to respecting your employees’ wishes about what they feel they need to learn, you also need to respect the time they have to learn and still get their work done.

“You have to look at every position and see how much training that position and person can handle given their responsibility,” Dilts says. “We’ve broken it down in the matrix of different positions need X amount of hours per year. How much time does a project manager truly have? What is it that we need to teach them? What’s the realistic time they can spend doing it? Every level and every position in our company has a threshold of what you can learn and a threshold of how much time you have to do it.”

Shiel Sexton is using a local college professor on sabbatical to help the company do an even better job of structuring its development processes and getting its employees the knowledge they want and need.

“What we’re morphing to is to make sure we have a consistent curriculum and then you can add the new things you need on an annual basis,” Dilts says. “He is spending a year with us doing nothing but reworking our training programs and the content and looking at how we deliver it to see if that is the most efficient way to deliver it. Are the classes and the core curriculum written properly? Are we delivering this in the most effective way?”

The key is to know what your people need to know to be able to do their jobs most effectively, whether that’s using a college professor or your own people.

“Look at every project, every position and decide what you think the successful skill set is,” Dilts says. “You profile a success story with a superintendent. We know that a superintendent has certain skill sets. If they are going to be an ‘A’ superintendent, you have to have a certain skill set. You just back into what makes them an ‘A’ superintendent. Break that down into a curriculum. Back that down into the number of hours you’re able to do it.”

Give them a reason to stay

Dilts is not a big believer in providing incentives to employees simply for taking part in training and development courses.

“It’s the wrong message,” Dilts says. “What they have to do is seek out training to improve in their jobs so that they can get better. It’s an expectation, not something where we would put a bonus to go to training.”

Still, there needs to be some tangible benefit for being an active participant in job training courses.

“If you are attending your training and you are improving, then if you want, you are getting more responsibility,” Dilts says. “That’s the way it works out. We do have people that go above and beyond that we absolutely do recognize. Those who take the initiative to train absolutely get recognized, both in their own jobs but even outside their jobs, for going the extra mile for the company, and we have rewards around that. What that helps us do is create teams of experts.”

This scenario results in employees who want to pass on their knowledge to others. They feel valuable and feel like they matter at your company. When that happens, the chances they will stick with your company become a lot better.

“We create both a peer network and mentoring built around our teams of experts,” Dilts says. “There’s permanency in each one of those areas. We’ve even set our office up where there’s collaboration and a lot of peer interaction. … It’s a place where you feel like the more you give, the more you get out of it. We’re very clear in our path to success for a person. They understand, ‘If I do this, I can be an engineer. If I do this, I can be a project manager. I can take on more and more responsibilities.’ The path is very clear.”

You need to show your employees how what they are doing helps people or provides a product or service to them.

“Our industry, you can go out and touch it,” Dilts says. “You can go out and watch kids going in and out of the children’s museum you just built. … It’s important for the president or CEO to connect the dots for people so they know that by the research I’m doing or whatever their role is, I’m going to change someone’s life in some way, shape or form to make it better.”

In the simplest terms, your goal should be to make your company a place your employees want to be.

“You give them a lot of responsibility and they have to see there is a place for them to grow,” Dilts says. “That is retaining. They have to look here and say, ‘You know, they are growing this place. There is a place for me, and I can take on as much responsibility as I can handle.”

How to reach: Shiel Sexton Co. Inc. (317) 423-6000 or www.shielsexton.com