Al Levi: Sharpening the axe before you need it company culture
The value of looking ahead, being prepared and staying ahead.
It was still hot and sweaty in the midday sun just a couple of days after Labor Day in New York, and at first glance, you’d think we were out in the yard in the dead of winter. Why were we out in the yard you ask? We were laying out our truck’s snow chains because our Service Manager, Tommy, at my family’s company made us do this every year right after Labor Day.
This was an annual ritual triggered by the calendar. No, not Outlook or Google Calendar, but the one with photos in it on each page that you had to flip after each month.
If you haven’t quite pictured Tommy yet, he was not a guy you questioned! You just did what you were told. Yes, that meant me and my brothers because Tommy was given full license by my dad to equally abuse his sons just the way he would any other person at the company. My dad knew all too well it was for our own good. Irving, my dad, was a very smart man.
Tommy didn’t take kindly to dawdling or being questioned. The message was clear, “Get in the yard now and don’t dare mess up or you’ll quickly understand how I can bury you with the worst of the worst jobs that need to get done.”
Tommy was a master motivator because he was brilliant, and we all knew it. Plus, he could break you with insults and his unflinching style. I know because he busted me into little pieces and put me back together again all for my own long-term good.
Tommy shared with me that he had worked in the trades from the time he was 10 years old and he was taught as a young boy by some very tough taskmasters that you train before you are called on to do something. You make sure everything is where it should be in your tool box and your truck so it’s ready to go when the busy season arrives.
This is the legacy he passed along to all of us who trained under him.
But honestly, when I was young and unknowing, I thought he was a little crazy. Well, maybe I thought he was really crazy. Picture if you will all of us melting under the summer sun straightening out and untangling snow chains, labeling them with the correct truck number and finally storing them on the individually labeled proper hooks.
Of course, I learned only a few years later after Tommy had retired and we had stopped what I thought was this goofy process that the only ones who were really crazy were all of us.
That’s because the first big snow storm of the season hit, and of course we had no idea where the chains were that season. The ones we found were not labeled, so good luck knowing for sure if they were the ones that you needed to put on your truck. And if you were lucky enough to find the “right” snow chains, they were so snarled and tangled that you’d have to straighten them out to get them on the truck. And by that time, the snow would have already melted.
We had ignored the discipline Tommy had drilled into us by disregarding his constant prodding of all us, “You need to make sure the axe is sharpened well before you need to use it to chop down trees.”
Today, I coach many clients about the value of looking ahead, being prepared and staying ahead.
Value of preparation
One example of this was an email I got from a client in mid-August while the heat was still on.
My client: You mentioned today that every fall and spring your company rolled out the heating or cooling operating manuals again as a refresher and did other stuff to get ready for the change of season.
I would also like to do this but when would be a good time and also who should pay for this type of training?
My reply: Great questions! My company did a re-rollout of the heating manual (know that this was much faster than the initial rollout when we first wrote them and rolled them out) starting every Aug. 15 and ending on or around Oct. 1. It was coupled with hands-on live troubleshooting and simulated calls in our working training center all so we could be as ready as possible for the heating season.
We also mixed in with the “tricking up” of the equipment in the training center by having them act as if they were going on service calls as follows: Come to the door the right way; ask the customers a few key questions; get permission to survey the whole job; present the menu of options to solve the problems; get the invoice signed; get to work, which is where we’d switch gears and dig in technically; and switch back to sales mode and exit the call the right way.
This whole process got repeated with our cooling manuals and utilizing the cooling side of our training center around late March or early April and that training ran until around May 15. It helped us get fully ready for cooling season.
As to who pays for this type of training, our company paid for all company training time. Ultimately, Frank Blau taught me the customer pays for everything. And that approach only makes sense because all the things we do from training to trucks to communication and more is in the customer’s best interest.
When you pay for training, it makes it clear to all that training is vital to all. It’s a non-negotiable thing and this type of training is not subject to needing people to volunteer.
The bulk of the training was done in two-hour blocks usually from 5 to 7 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We brought in pizza and bonded as a group.
The only exception about paid training was when we offered big block training, which was about career advancement. The apprentices and techs attended this type of training voluntarily. They actually had to sign off on this. The fact is they would have had to pay a trade school for anything close to our in-house training and still it wouldn’t ensure them that they’d move up our salary ladder and prepare them in the same way to advance their own careers.
Are you looking ahead, preparing now and getting ready for your best season ever? Sharpen the axe now!