Training focuses on the human resource of service contracting.

Management just happens. You take your best tradesman and put him in charge of everyone else. Or, maybe it's the guy with the most seniority who gets the nod. Who better to teach your people the way things have always been done at your shop?

Management training? Get real. That may be OK for Fortune 500 companies, but who in this industry has time for it? All anyone needs to know is it's the boss's job to tell the workers what to do, and their job to do what he says, or hit the road.

This is how upward mobility gets decided at the vast majority of PHC firms. If you are a contractor with any degree of sophistication, you might perceive some shortcomings in this industry tradition. But even if you want to teach your people how to be good managers, the best you can do is send them to a seminar now and then. Systematic, accessible management training is hard to come by in the PHC industry.

It was one of the largest perceived needs for members of Contractors 2000, which spent four years putting together a program to address it. Its Gold Star Management Academy, launched in 1997, is the only program I'm aware of in the industry that zeroes in on (1) professional training in managing people, and (2) relates the people side of the business specifically to the PHC service business.

Most instructors are drawn from the ranks of C-2000 contractor members and staff -- who themselves are put through a rigorous "training the trainers" program before stepping in front of a class. Aimed at everyone with management responsibility at a PHC service firm from the owners on down, Gold Star is held three or four times a year, depending on demand. Gold Star has trained upwards of 250 personnel since its inception.

The four-day program is held at the Oak Ridge Conference Center, a training facility owned by American Express in an idyllic country setting about a half-hour outside of Minnesota's Twin Cities where C-2000 is headquartered. The distraction-free environment is ideally suited for business training. Oak Ridge is also a hotel with dining room, fitness and recreation rooms, and a bar, but students are not likely to regard this trip as a junket. Not with dawn-to-dusk classroom sessions and evening homework assignments taking up most waking hours. (They do take a few hours off one afternoon for a recreational retreat that comes as a surprise.)

I was struck by the sophisticated level of instruction. It incorporates plenty of detailed how-to along with big-picture overviews of management philosophy. In fact, Gold Star has evolved into a "graduate" training course, with a parallel C-2000 "Boot Camp" replacing it for entry-level management training starting last year. This reporter has spent years listening to C-2000 members give rave reviews to Gold Star, so last fall I decided to attend for a couple of days and see what it was all about.

Some Impressions

  • Gold Star registrants receive a 3-inch thick manual notable for its easy-to-read presentation, and filled with management wisdom targeted to the residential service business. (Snippets of wisdom from this manual can be found in boxes splashed throughout this article.) It was drawn from best practices of various C-2000 members and put together by The Friedman Group, a Dallas-based training and consulting firm C-2000 has employed for numerous projects over the years. The manual covers the following topics:
    • Introduction to Service Management;
    • Service Manager's Job Responsibilities;
    • Ethical Management;
    • The Financial Component (of a service business);
    • Help Wanted, with subheadings for Recruitment, Hiring, Retention;
    • Training & Performance Development;
    • Personality Profiling for Performance;
    • Keeping Score;
    • Managing & Coaching Your Team;
    • Progressive Discipline;
    • Carrying Out Your Plan;
    • Forms.
    Note the focus on human resources management. C-2000 has separate training programs covering sales and other specialized skills.

  • Live instruction draws in part from manual content, but nobody can simply read the manual and claim s/he has experienced Gold Star. The most engrossing parts of the Academy were tales drawn from the real-world experiences of the instructors, who included:
      --Bill Raymond, Frank & Lindy Plumbing & Heating Service Co., Peekskill, N.Y.;

      --Jeff Meehan, Cabrillo Plumbing & Heating, San Francisco, Calif.;

      --Ellen Rohr, PM's popular columnist, an independent consultant and president of Benjamin Franklin Plumbing;

      --Marla Coffin, formerly a C-2000 staff member, now an independent consultant;

      --Matt Smith, a consultant from The Friedman Group;

      --Jean Ruotsinoja, an independent consultant specializing in personality profiling;

      --Greg Niemi, C-2000's director of development, who oversees the Gold Star program.

  • The instructors meet for several hours at the end of each day to critique one another's performance. This leads to continuous improvement, and it shows. I came away dazzled by the instructors' command of a classroom, including those without professional training backgrounds prior to Gold Star.

  • Attendees who were late to class or interrupted by cell phones or pagers were forced to display "scarlet letter" signs in front of their seats identifying them as miscreants. The public humiliation is good-natured enough that nobody is likely to go postal at the affront, but does get across the message that what they're doing there is important, and that tardiness and distractions are taboo in the business world. (In the "Boot Camp" program, violators are forced to peel potatoes.)

  • What could have been a stuffy business-like atmosphere was alleviated by plenty of motivational hoopla. Actually, the sloganeering and shouting grew tiresome from this jaded reporter's perspective, but everyone else seemed to enjoy it. Trainers in every field typically resort to such hijinks to gain attention and break up monotony. Overall, the training at Gold Star ranks right up there in professionalism with programs I am familiar with at Fortune 500 companies.

    Underlying the entire presentation was a solid management philosophy resting on these fundamental principles:

      1. You must set goals.
      2. Those goals must be statistically measurable.
      3. You achieve those goals through employee behavior.
      4. Employee behavior must be shaped through training.
      5. You must track results.
      6. You must analyze those results.
    Persons leaving this program go away with all the information they need to hire, fire, supervise, manage and motivate employees to achieve a profitable and harmonious business. It pays off when C-2000 firms attract top-notch employees in a brutally competitive seller's market for labor.

    Class size is limited. Gold Star has enrolled up to 30 at a time, but generally tries to keep it between 20-25 students. In addition to travel expenses, C-2000 charges its members a registration fee for each person sent to Gold Star, with a money-back guarantee, although almost nobody ever asks for a refund. In fact, an office manager at the session I attended was there for the second time. She explained it had been several years since her first Gold Star experience, and she felt in need of a refresher.

    The program is limited to C-2000 member firms. Leaders of the organization feel this program is one of their crown jewels among member services, and based on everything I observed, I wouldn't argue.