When there's no room at the top for them, your employees may leave you.

My client in Minnesota called for help because three of his top managers gave him two weeks notice: His estimator who came to him nine years ago as an apprentice, one project manager who came as a plumber five years ago, and a job superintendent who was with him for three years. All three gave him weak reasons for leaving but he felt something else had to be the cause.

I talked with all three separately. As you may have guessed, all three gave me the same story.

"We are topped out here. There is no room to grow. We're making good money and our boss is enjoying life, but he has no intentions of growing. His two sons are running the company now and there is one more coming out of college, plus whomever his daughter marries."

As I relayed this to my client, he was amazed. "Why wouldn't they tell that to me? What should we do now? Is there any chance we can keep them from leaving?"

His most important question was the last one. Fortunately, in this situation we were able to keep those key employees.

I answered his first question with another question. "When did you personally talk one-on-one with any of those three about their jobs or their personal situations?" He was embarrassed with his own answer: He thought that since they all saw each other quite often, they would have come to him if they had a problem to discuss. He told me, "I remember your breakdown of that word assume -- ASS-U-ME."

Generally a good employee will make a commitment to his or her new job before giving you notice. You cannot afford to wait until then to talk to your employees.

Communication Is Key

Downward communication is very easy but often overlooked. Upward communication is very, very difficult, primarily due to a fear of retribution. Employees are afraid they might say the wrong thing and lose their jobs or rapport with their bosses.

All of my recommendations for keeping score and documentation are aimed at creating positive, continuing downward communication and hopefully some valuable upward feedback.

    1. Documented and signed review of all interview and hiring discussions and promises.
    2. Written checklist for proper orientation.
    3. Negotiated and written job description (scope of work).
    4. Employee performance file for "attaboys" and "no-nos."
    5. Reviews as needed, but at least yearly.
    6. Job opportunity notes in paychecks for all new available positions.
    7. Skill inventory monthly audits.
In addition to these items that require ongoing one-on-one communication, you should also consider weekly office meetings with your staff and monthly bosses meetings for your jobsite supervisors.

Keep in mind that the "employee-to-boss" communication gap is ever-present and you need to watch for any sign or opening to "hear what they are thinking." Everyone in your chain of command should be trained to learn how to "listen" to his or her subordinates:

    How well do they like their job?
    How do they get along with other members of your team?
    What would they like to do?
    What progress are they making toward their goals?
    How could we help?
As you learn about each individual employee's goals you can concentrate on available options. The majority of construction employees will be contented in a craftsman, foreman, estimator or project manager position. Some have higher hopes and dreams. Some of these are realistic and reachable, but some are only dreams. By offering every position to every employee they will realize and appreciate their own potential.

You cannot overlook the Great American Dream to own your own business. Millions of construction employees dream and hope that someday they can own their own businesses. Some of them will try as moonlighters in after-work situations and many leave their jobs and start out on their own. The Small Business Administration statistics report that 93 percent of new businesses fail within three years, but all of those had the satisfaction of trying to make it.

When you have one of these would-be entrepreneurs on your payroll that you do not wish to lose, you should consider some of these options:

1. If your company has stockholders, he or she may be content to buy shares and become a part-owner.

2. You can start a new company and allow him or her to purchase up to 49 percent of the stock. This is a good opportunity to put your own children into their own business with that good employee as their minority shareholding partner.

You can diversify into another related aspect of the mechanical tasks like service work, residential, prefabrication, industrial, design build, fire sprinklers, etc. You can also pick any of the other building trades or start any type of profit-making venture that would interest the people involved.

You may also have opportunities to open a new business in a different geographical market area. This is especially effective when that area is near the employee's (or their spouse's) home town or where they would desire to move.

3. You can treat him or her as a subcontractor and allow them to continue doing some specific phases of your work.

If they are definitely not interested in making a workable arrangement with you, be very careful not to "burn any bridges" that would prevent them from returning to your company. Keep in mind that the grass is not always greener on the other side and over 90 percent of the new ventures do not last three years.

Your parting words should be, "We wish you the best of luck and hope that you are successful. We were always proud of you as our employee and our door is always open."

Climbing The Ladder

You should always be aware of upward interest, diagnosis and imagination. Your employees are constantly watching who gets to the top, where they came from, how they got there and how qualified they are. Their primary concern is, "What are my chances to climb this management ladder?"

Naturally this is something that should be openly discussed, one-on-one, along with your scorekeeping and documentation procedures. Your employees will not normally bring up that subject but you can.

Too often contractors feel that since they own the company, they can do whatever they please. That is certainly correct, but not very smart. You can kill the ambition and positive attitude of your best employees. They always knew that you own the company but they like to think that it is "their company!"

The very worst mistake you can make is hiring from the outside without interviewing existing employees. You have an exceptional employee who is diligently working for a promotion. He gives you extra effort, extra hours and time away from his family. His wife is not happy with him being gone, but backs his efforts to climb up your ladder. When a top position finally becomes available, you interview and hire an outsider. This employee is now looking for a decent job where his efforts will be rewarded.

As many of you have already experienced, this employee takes all of his really good prot?s with him when he leaves -- not to hurt you, but to give them a fair chance to succeed in this great industry.

Examine your written chain of command: How many of those top positions came up through the ranks? How many are immediate relatives? How effective are they as people-building coaches?

As you analyze your management chain you also need to think about attracting good employees. All of those frustrated climbers who left other companies with no room at the top will surely check you out thoroughly before they even consider coming on board.

Fortunately fixing this whole "room at the top" situation is easy, it's fun, it's exciting, and it doesn't cost money. It makes money!

By using a people-building coach's philosophy, you simply train a backup player for every position on your team. Offer these options to every employee and use role reversal where the foreman becomes the assistant and the assistant runs the job. You can utilize this role reversal all the way up to and including the CEO.

Just imagine what your ambassadors will be telling their friends and relatives!

The greatest part of this strategy is that your competitors are not doing it. They "own" their company and they can do anything they please!

Ridilla At ISH NA

Paul Ridilla is a scheduled speaker at the ISH North America tradeshow debuting in Toronto Oct. 31-Nov.2. Paul will present two sessions of "Manpower Miracles: How to Recruit, Motivate and Retain Employees" on Thursday, Oct. 31: the first running 10-11:30 a.m., and repeating at 3:30-5 p.m. To register for the show, visit www.ish-na.com.