Al Levi
Editor's note:Consultant Al Levi helps contractors run their businesses with "less stress and more success." HVAC and plumbing contractors seek his advice regularly. Al has agreed to let us share with readers ofThe Newssome of the questions he gets and the answers he provides. The focus is strictly on problem solving and handling the day-to-day operations of a successful contracting business.

To send Al your own questions, which if selected will run anonymously, send him an e-mail at or fax him at 212-202-6275.

This column is meant to be a resource only. Please check with your own trusted business advisers, including your own attorney, to make certain that the advice here complies with all relevant laws, customs, and regulations in your area.

Dear Al,

I'm growing my company each year. That's the good news. However, I find I need to keep adding new people every time I grow. The bad news is that I find myself working harder and longer managing my ever-increasing staff.

I thought my workload would get easier if I could just have more people, but I found out I have to spend my days running around helping everyone else do their job. No one seems to want to take responsibility for anything, and when I want to delegate a project, I end up disappointed with the results. Normally, I have to stop what I'm doing and come to the rescue. If I have to do their work as well as mine, what's the benefit of growing and having more people?

Am I expecting too much?

The Rescuer

Dear Rescuer,

I suspect that you haven't learned how to properly delegate work. And that's why the people you hire aren't anxious to take on new responsibilities. They really want to help but are afraid you won't be satisfied or you'll be disappointed in them. No one wants to fail.

The first thing you need to accept to minimize making your support staff feel they may be letting you down is to lose the "rescuer" mentality. Unconsciously, you may relish the role of riding in to the rescue because it makes you feel important. And if you need this fix, it'll undermine your ability to leverage the talents of your staff and their ability to help you. This is true no matter how talented the people are that you hire.

Understand that no one was born your clone and they aren't mind readers. Accept this and find ways to make your team members more effective and successful, and they'll want to do more.

The key to delegating correctly is good communication. And good communication means they know what you want to have happen, what objective measurement you will use to determine whether they were successful or not, what reward they will get for a job well done, what consequence there is for not succeeding, what tools they'll have to accomplish the task, and when you want it done.

Another part of good communication for delegating is to set up frequent short meetings that help ensure a project is on track to be successful. For example, you have delegated a project that must be completed a certain way and be done within a month. Suppose you don't have any meetings till a month later when the project is due. There are only two possible outcomes. They will have either done everything the way you wanted and in the time you need it completed. Or, they will have wasted a month's time and a bunch of your resources doing work that you won't like and they'll miss the deadline.

That's why a meeting every week would be a smart way to help provide the necessary direction and help give everyone the greatest chance for a successful outcome.

Al Levi

Dear Al,

Whenever I ask anyone on my staff to do just one more thing than they are already doing, they get angry. Their attitude is "It's not my job," "It's not what I was hired to do," or "It's not part of my job description." Or, "I want more money."

As a business owner, I need people willing to take on more as the business demands. I need people willing to learn multiple jobs so I have the maximum amount of coverage.

Changing demands in the business world requires our flexibility, but the employees resist even the simplest change.

Also, there always seems to be more paperwork and new government regulations to adhere to. Is it any wonder I need my employees to do more? Am I wrong to expect them to do more and to cross-train as the business requires it?

One More Thing

Dear One More Thing,

The resistance to change is very powerful. People are not robots and as humans we rarely embrace change unless we understand what's in it for us.

Whenever you ask people to do one more thing than they are currently doing, they feel you're taking advantage of them. They take it personally. You see it as merely needing them to be more flexible and more cooperative.

Here's what I suggest. Get rid of one of the obstacles to change. The idea of a bulleted list that passes for a job description needs to go. As an employee, if I agree to a bulleted job description and you add one more thing to that list, I'm being put upon.

What should take the place of a bulleted job description? I recommend the creation of a detailed manual for each and every job position at your company. It contains all the tasks that given job position must do.

Then, make it clear that their job description from now on is to know and master all the tasks and procedures in their manual. Also, let them know the manual is a living document that is always changing. Anytime the manual changes so has their job description. Develop a culture of change.

Once you've created manuals for each job position, you have a valuable tool to speed your cross-training and a way to make training more effective than ever. All the person needs to do is read the manual and they'll be trained following the written procedures on how you want the work done.

Al Levi

Dear Al,

I run weekly training sessions for my technicians. And, each week I stand at the front of the room at the podium, ask a series of questions about what's going on in the field, and try to get them to talk to me about what's going on out there. I ask them what we can do to improve as a company. But the room remains silent unless there is someone who's feeling brave enough or angry enough to gripe about something.

There's no real participation and no real communication going on. Any tips on how to get them talking?

Pulling Teeth

Dear Pulling Teeth,

I know your meetings and training sessions will generate a lot more discussion if you change the room dynamics. Standing in front of the room at a podium has the unconscious message that you're the teacher and they're the student. You're in charge and they are not.

What I recommend to get the conversation flowing is to rearrange the tables in a square so everyone is facing one another and sit down rather than stand. The message is we're all equals and we're here face-to-face to work to make things better. I guarantee they'll be much more willing to speak up.

Also, I'd recommend you improve your skills at running effective meetings and training sessions. Classes such as Dale Carnegie will really improve your skill and make all your meetings more interesting and more fun. Dan Holohan has a wonderful book called How to Teach Technicians Without Putting Them to Sleep and I have helpful tips on how to run good meetings on my Web site and as part of my workshops.

Make your meetings worthy of their time, change the room dynamics, and watch the change in participation. And, sometimes, just a fresh pot of coffee puts everyone in a more talkative mood.

Al Levi

Al Levi of Appleseed Business specializes, as his Web site says, in "Making Contractors' Lives Less Stressful and More Successful." Through interactive workshops, on-site assessments, or long-term consulting, Levi delivers the benefit of the experience he gained from years of operating a large family-run HVAC and plumbing business. Learn more by visiting You may also contact Levi by e-mail at or by fax at 212-202-6275.

Publication date: 05/03/2004