Years ago, the lumber dealer I was working for was growing quickly— and promoting people just as quickly. One year, for example, I brought on a new assistant general manager, a dispatcher, a yard manager, and a second shift supervisor, all in a span of four months.
For me, the fun part is breaking them in. In the 1990s my favorite buzzword was MBWA: Management By Walking Around. That particular year, I was doing nothing but running.
It’s natural for new managers to step into the ready to reinvent the operation, if not the wheel. For employees, on the other hand, getting a new supervisor is like having a substitute teacher. Before long, spitwads started flying. Every day it seemed as if someone new got sent to the principal’s office.
As a rule, I try to let people work things out among themselves. But I knew it was time to step in when my yard manager came to me after two months on the job and asked to order more formal warning slips because he was running out.
A round of private discussions with the crew and supervisors confirmed that a riot was brewing. I called a mandatory after work meeting with everyone, to clear the air. I spent the first half-hour talking about teamwork, common goals, and the company’s vision, but I could see I wasn’t really getting anywhere. Finally, I stopped and said, “Look, you’re going to have to work together, and to do that, you have to believe in each other. Now you tell me: What do you believe working at this company should be all about?”
That brought them to life. A they talked; I wrote their answers on a whiteboard. “I believe we should be the best damn lumberyard in the Northeast,” said one yard worker. “I want us to grow so much that someday I can say I delivered to every contractor in the state,” said one driver. “I want to work with a group of guys so good that we never make a mistake,” added a dispatcher.
For the next 30 minutes, they talked, and I wrote. But when I steered the discussion back to our problem, they clammed up again. They all wanted to do the right things—they just didn’t want to do them with each other. It was clear that one meeting wasn’t going to resolve the issue. Finally, I called it quits and invited everyone to go have a beer.
Two plus hours and $500 later, they were shooting the breeze and joking like long-lost friends. Naturally, most of the jokes were directed at me. “You’re right, Mike—a man has got to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another beer.” I won’t say things were perfect in the yard after that night, but they were a lot better than they were. And they got better as time went on. Most important, I think I found the next hot management fad.
I now call it MPUT—Management by Picking Up the Tab!
Mike McDole has 40+ years’ experience on the firing- line for pro-dealers of the LBM industry and is the principal of Firing-Line LBM Consulting. He’s also partners with Greg Brooks of Executive Council on Construction Supply and his Learning Management System.