Make a plan for transformational change in your business and kiss that rut you’ve been stuck in goodbye

By Lisa Gordon

Construction has gotten lean and mean.

The “good old days” of raking in substantial profits are largely gone. Margins are shrinking while competition is on the rise. It’s no surprise that the contractors who have successfully changed with the times are the ones who now find themselves leading the pack.

Although implementing transformational change at your business may be a daunting prospect, it’s no longer sufficient to do things the way they’ve always been done.

Piling Canada spoke with three business coaches to get some tips for contractors who find themselves stuck in the same old rut. We learned that positive change is within reach of any company, providing the leader is willing to roll up their sleeves and make a plan.

Map your strategy

If your business has hit a plateau, change is necessary to take it to the next level.

Your first step as an owner is to identify what that next level looks like. Do you want to make another million in sales this year? Identify and train your successor? Take more vaca-tion time?

Some honest introspection is critical here. Invest some time in determining how you want your future to look.

“Most people who are in a rut have a lot of ideas on what to change and how to do it, but they just don’t know where to start,” said Mike Draper, a business coach with Growth Advisors in Toronto, Ont. “So the question I would ask a company is ‘What is your plan?’ Once you have that roadmap, you can follow it to reach your destination. It’s just a matter of implementing it. But without a plan, it will never happen.”

Draper said that while many business owners are really good at what they do, they have no formal business education or experience.

“My work deals with those aspects. Change, systems, processes – they know how to do the work, but don’t know how to run the business to make it profitable,” he said.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Once your plan is set, it’s time to share it with your staff, start-ing with your senior managers.

“Every situation is different, but there are key things to remember,” said Mark Nesbitt, founder of Mark Nesbitt Training and Consulting in Ottawa and a 30-year veteran of the aggregate construction industry. “One of those things is that if your people haven’t bought the leader, they’re never going to buy the vision. The number one thing people want from their leader is clarity.”

Leaders must be the first to change, he says. And then it’s a matter of explaining your plan to employees and asking for their feedback and ideas.

“Sometimes you have to ask the people in the trenches, ‘If you were me, what would you do differently?’ It’s pretty hard to beat face-to-face conversations. People very rarely remember what we said, but they always remember how we made them feel,” said Nesbitt.

Communication in this phase is key. Your plan for change needs to be clearly outlined to not just employees, but also to customers and suppliers. Obtaining their buy-in is essential.

Take action

By this point you will have a very good idea of where the “pain points” are in your business and hopefully you’ll be thinking about some new opportunities that have been identified as well.

“I always recommend sitting down with trusted advisors to do a strategy session,” said Calgary-based Cheryl Dyck, a business consultant since 1990 and owner of MSI Action Group, a business and executive coaching firm founded in 2009. “Look at where you are today and how you can build towards where you want to go.”

She says that rather than making big sweeping changes, it’s advisable to set smaller quarterly goals that build upon one another.

“Prioritize the items that will have the biggest impact with the least effort first, so you get some small wins and the team can see change is happening,” she said. “This helps them to buy into the overall change process.”

Dyck says that team members can be delegated to oversee some of these individual items.

“For instance, maybe an organization doesn’t have a good scheduling process for the team,” she said. “It can be as simple as a whiteboard that lists every project with deadlines and who is assigned to it. This organizes and controls the process and when things are visible, it creates clarity.”

And speaking of the team, says Dyck, employee training is a top priority.

“Improving communication, building a structure for the future and helping your team to be better is by far number one,” she said.

Nesbitt agrees.

“The best investment any company could ever make is in their people,” he said. “People appreciate whereas equipment depreciates.”

He adds that documentation is important, too.

“Put together proper training procedures – a standard-ized training procedure that you go over and check off when training has been completed,” said Nesbitt. “There’s a lot of power in somebody’s signature; when they sign off that they have been trained, it puts some accountability back on them.”

Technology also has the power to effect positive change. “It could be computerizing; setting up systemization that people can follow,” said Draper. “It could be as simple as using QuickBooks for your bookkeeping system. It could be using a project management package to better organize the job site. It’s those types of changes that will have the biggest impact on reducing the complexity of the job by providing a central location for all job documentation.

“As we say at Growth Advisors, ‘The systems run the business. The people run the systems. The owners lead the people.’”

And while the owners are leading the people, they shouldn’t be in a rush to implement change overnight.

“People need at least six months to go through change,” said Draper. “They’re probably already working 50 to 60 hours a week, and to dedicate three hours per week to change seems like an overwhelming effort. We like to ask for 10 per cent of their week to be focused on making change.”

Refresh forward

While it may be tempting to stay in the same old rut because it feels safe, Dyck says it most certainly is not.

“In a lot of companies, if they’re just maintaining status quo then they’re running the risk of declining,” she said. “As time goes on, clients tend to fall out and so do team mem-bers. You always have to refresh forward. Look at new ways of doing things, new target markets, etc.”

The project estimating and management process is one area to examine; Dyck notes it’s often a firm’s biggest weakness.

She said companies can use templated estimating tools to calculate revenue, costs and margins for each project before the quote is provided to the client, to ensure the business will, in fact, make money.

“Most of my clients then compare this to the numbers after the project is completed, so they learn to improve on estimations,” she said.

Current financial information is a must, says Draper.

“It all starts with knowing your numbers,” he said. “Everything you do, you must test and measure it. If the goal is revenue growth or profit growth, it’s very easy to track those metrics.”

Nesbitt says there is a wealth of knowledge available through the many leadership books on the market. One he highly recommends is It’s Your Ship by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff.

There’s no question that change is a must for contractors looking to survive in today’s competitive market. If you think your company is ticking along just fine, maybe it’s time to take a closer look.

As Nesbitt said, “There is always something we can do better. Always.” 


Sign Up

To receive our e-newsletter in your inbox, please provide your e-mail below.

About Us

Piling Canada is the premier national voice for the Canadian deep foundation construction industry. Each issue is dedicated to providing readers with current and informative editorial, including project updates, company profiles, technological advancements, safety news, environmental information, HR advice, pertinent legal issues and more.