Editor's Note:  This is the ninth in our 2007 series of The Business Owner Toolbox written by our regular columnist, George Hedley.  Each article is written to provide you with practical, immediately applicable business management tools to assist you on your path to building a successful, growing business.

What drives you crazy about owning or managing your construction business? Is it:

  • Trying to get paid?
  • Getting change orders approved?
  • Late material deliveries?
  • Having to cut your bid?
  • Signing twenty-seven page contracts?
  • Going to job meetings?
  • Showing up when the job isn’t ready?
  • Waiting for inspectors?
  • Doing too much paperwork?
  • Dealing with difficult job superintendents?

My guess is that dealing with your people is what keeps you up at night, such as:

  • Getting them to show up on time.
  • Making them do what you want them to do.
  • Getting them to be accountable.
  • Having them take on some responsibility.
  • Getting them to avoid mistakes.
  • Having them get it right the first time.
  • Getting them to care about the bottom line.
  • Having them meet project goals.
  • Getting them to be productive.
  • Having to discipline them.
  • Getting them to do quality, efficient work.
  • Having to fire them.

 When I speak at conventions, I often ask business owners and managers to tell me what their perfect business would be like. The common answer is a business without people! But the second most important ingredient to business success is excellent people. (No. 1 is customers.) Without good people, you’ll never make any profit or be able to grow your business. Take a look at this common dilemma I hear about from business owners:  “I’m just a small company. How can I get my employees to do what I want them to do? An employee mistake can cost me everything, so I can’t let my people make any big decisions.”  

Do You Chase Wheelbarrows?

A few years ago, I was visiting one of our big jobs. We were building a Kmart store. As I drove out onto the site, I noticed one of our long-time laborers cleaning the slab with a broom and shovel. He was sweeping debris into his shovel and then walking about 100 yards to the trash bin. He repeated this for several minutes until I finally stopped and asked him: ‘Where’s your wheelbarrow?” He said his boss didn’t give him a wheelbarrow to use today. I asked him if a wheelbarrow would make the job go faster. He said that it would. I asked him why he didn’t have one to use, and he said his boss wasn’t around that morning to get a wheelbarrow for him, so he did what he could to stay busy. 

So, what did I do? I went and looked for the job foreman. After looking for a few minutes to no avail, I looked for the job superintendent. He was in the job office in a meeting. So, as the big boss, I went to my truck, got a key to the job storage bin, unlocked it and got a wheelbarrow for the laborer to use. I solved the problem! Or did I? Have you ever fixed a problem yourself but not addressed the bigger problem? What’s wrong with this picture? The laborer was not trusted with a key to the bin. The laborer was not responsible for:

  • Bottom-line results
  • Using the right tools
  • Thinking
  • Making decisions
  • Doing his best
  • Anything

The foreman and superintendent were:

  • Not setting clear targets and goals
  • Not explaining the big picture
  • Not trusting people
  • Not giving up their authority
  • Not training their field crews
  • Not communicating properly
  • Are You a Firefighter?

Do you ever feel like a firefighter running from one fire to another with only a garden hose? Do you feel like all you do is put out everyone else’s fires? Do you complete your employees’ work all day and yours all night? What wheelbarrows do you chase? 

Do you wish your people were more accountable? Why don’t they take on more responsibility? In a recent poll of field employees, 66 percent were asked to make decisions. But only 14 percent of them feel empowered and trusted to make the decision. They’re afraid their boss will yell at them if they make mistakes or the wrong choices. Rather than risk it, employees don’t take on more than they have to. The root of most people problems is the boss, not the employee.  

Who Owns the Problem?

When the boss owns every problem, only he or she can solve them correctly. When you solve other people’s problems for them, they rely on you to solve all their problems. When people aren’t responsible for any problems, how can they be responsible for any solutions? Do you or your employees make decisions regarding the following:

  • Ordering materials
  • Scheduling crews
  • Meeting with customers
  • Negotiating contracts
  • Estimating and reviewing bids
  • Purchasing equipment
  • Buying small tools
  • Choosing suppliers
  • Hiring every employee
  • Spending any money
  • Selecting a coffee brand

When you continually solve everyone else’s problem, your people can’t grow and become the best they can be. Each person who works for you wants to be accountable and responsible for some part of their job. It’s your job to let go and get them doing what you pay them to do. You hire people because you can’t do all the work yourself. So, why can’t they do the job perfectly just like you can? Without empowered people, you’ll never grow your business.  

You Can’t Do It All Yourself!

Small business owners start out as the sole proprietor making every decision. Successful business owners realize they can’t do it all themselves and seek people they can trust and grow with. Look at the bigger companies. They have levels of responsible people who make most everyday business decisions. The owner had to decide he wasn’t the only person on the planet who was as smart as he was! 

The No. 1 reason employees don’t accept accountability or responsibility is that they don’t know exactly what you want them to do. You tell them, but they don’t fully understand exactly what you really want. They’re afraid to step out and go for it for fear of their boss’s reaction when things aren’t done the way he wanted it done.


The No. 2 reason employees don’t accept responsibility is that their boss doesn’t really trust them to make decisions. Do you tell your people what to do and then say: “Before you do that, check with me first”? Follow this five-step process to get your people to become more accountable and responsible, clearly understand what you want them to do, and feel trusted and empowered to get things done. 

5 Steps to Make People Accountable and Responsible 

1. Establish Clear Expectations and Understanding

The first and most important step is to make people clearly understand what you want them to do. When asked, over 66 percent of employees don’t know specifically what they’re asked to do, what’s expected, or what results their boss wants them to accomplish and by when. Go ask your people the top three things you want them to accomplish today and this week. Will they give you the answer you think they should? Probably not!  

To ensure your people know what you want, tell them, show them and then draw a visual picture to explain it again. People remember what they see, not what they hear. For example, if you want your crew to complete forming 200 linear feet of site walls and have them ready for pouring concrete by Friday, what would you do? Poor managers take on the supervisor’s job themselves and micro-manage their foreman two or three times a day. They make sure things are progressing properly, order all materials, make the necessary phone calls and schedule the required labor and equipment. In other words, they don’t let their foreman make any decisions about the actions required to achieve the desired end results.

A good leader would call a team meeting to create an action plan with their foreman and crew. The agenda would include the following points:

  1. Clearly outline the overall project goals
  2. Explain the reasons why they’re important
  3. Review the project plans and specifications
  4. Discuss action plans to complete the work
  5. The leader would get the foreman to
  • Review the action plans to the team
  • Assign individual team member’s responsibilities
  • Discuss the timing of each step required
  • Show team members exactly what’s expected
  • Visit the jobsite where the work will take place
  • Look for site obstacles or challenges
  • Review any questions


 6.  Set up a follow-up and review schedule to keep track of progress

2. Create a Scorecard and Tracking System

In order to make people accountable and responsible, there must be simple milestones and deadlines to achieve and track. In baseball, there are nine innings and statistics for runs, hits, errors, walks, strikeouts, home runs and runs batted in. Just like players on a baseball team, your team members need to know how they stand in order to meet your goals and expectations. Without a tracking system, people can’t be accountable for hitting 300 percent without knowledge of their current standing and progress toward the end result.  

I created a “Hardhat Scorecard” to track the progress of job activities for our team to set and review on a daily or weekly basis. It includes a place for one huge goal plus three action plan goals to track.

At the beginning of each project or task, get the team together to discuss the major goals you want to track and achieve. Using the previous example of forming a wall, the huge target is to be 100 percent ready to pour by Friday. The three sub-goals can be foundations, forming and rebar installation. For each area, decide what targets will keep your team on track, and then review their progress daily to eventually achieve the ultimate goal. This visual tracking systems works! 

3. Define Levels of Authority

To avoid confusion, misunderstandings and to build trust with your employees, you must clearly explain to them their level of authority. Can they buy materials or tools? How much can they spend without approval from their boss? Can they commit the company on change orders? Can they hire or fire? What decisions are they authorized to make on their own? 

I learned a long time ago my people make better decisions than I do. They’re more careful with my money than I am. Given clear rules and parameters, your people will become great team leaders and empowered employees. Given no or little authority keeps them unaccountable and irresponsible. What is your foreman’s spending limit before having to check with you? Is it more than $0? When I increased the maximum spending limit for my foreman to $1,000, they were able to handle most of the little day-to-day decisions without my involvement. This allowed them to grow and become fully accountable team leaders. My project managers know they need two signatures on every contract or change order greater than $5,000. This allows them to get help or advice on bigger decisions but keeps jobs moving when they need to act on most issues. Some other levels of authority for your company might include decisions on equipment, subcontractor or supplier selection and what to do when plans conflict with field conditions. When can your foreman deviate from the plans or specifications? What happens if your customer wants some extra work performed? Or what should happen if an employee needs discipline or termination? Get your managers, superintendents and foremen together to discuss all the decisions they must make to keep their jobs moving. List them out, and decide the limit at which they need to check with the boss before moving ahead. 

4. Be a Coach, Not a Controller

People want to be coached, not controlled. The best coach usually wins the most games. When your crew isn’t accountable or responsible, it’s a reflection of the coach’s control or lack of control. The more you control, the less your people do for themselves. The more decisions you make for them, the fewer decisions they will make. The more questions you answer for them everyday, the less they have to think and learn. Is that what you want?  

Good coaches train their employees regularly, have team meetings to review progress and ask their team leaders to think for themselves and call their own plays. Even great head football coaches don’t call their own plays. Your job is to explain what’s expected, and then provide feedback as to their progress. Use regular check-in times and follow-up. 

Good coaches also regularly recognize, praise and encourage their players to become the best they can be. Make it your priority to look for the good instead of pointing out the bad. Yelling doesn’t work.  Motivating people makes them want to do more, accept responsibility and become accountable. The louder you scream, the less they want to do. 

5. Celebrate and Reward Success

When accountable and responsible employees achieve great results, they need to be thanked and rewarded. It’s your job as the leader to set up a fun, competitive and simple system to reward success. At your regular job or company meetings, pick out two people to recognize for a job well done.  

Start a weekly award for the field crew member who saves the most money, does something excellent, has the best attitude, makes the best decision or goes the extra mile for the customer. Keep it fun, challenging and interactive. Let everyone on the crew vote for the winner some weeks, and on alternating weeks, let your project managers choose the recipient. Give out small prizes like gift certificates a restaurant, tickets to ballgames, T-shirts, new tools or hardhat stickers.  Make It Happen!By implementing these simple steps, your people will grow and want to take on more responsibility. It’s your responsibility to let go of accountability. Get started right now by taking three things off of your “to-do” list, and delegate them to someone else. Enjoy! 


Construction Business Owner, September 2007