Last month, I promised to resume commenting on the more serious aspects of electrical contracting. One of those nuggets from my list of suggestions for improving one’s life, slightly modified, serves as a good lead-in: “Your goals and your ‘comfort zone’ should always be in conflict.”
Five years ago, then-president of the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), Milner Irvin (Riverside Electric, Miami), and former NECA President Ben Cook (Oklahoma Electric Supply, Brownwood, Texas) co-starred in a video production, “Moving Out of the Comfort Zone.” It was sent on DVD to all 17,000-plus union-signatory electrical contractors with the recommendation that they show it to their employees on company time. The idea was for executives, managers and workers to view it together to generate some productive discussions.
The underlying message applies to all of us, regardless of labor affiliation. That is, if you do things the way you have always done them because you are currently fat and happy or because you’re afraid of change, life—and your competitors—may pass you by. Regularly getting passed by will tarnish how you are perceived and limit your options. You may soon find that the zone you locked yourself into is no longer so comfortable.
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) International President Ed Hill provided a timely comment in the December issue of Electrical Worker that illustrates how this concept plays out in real life. To paraphrase, when work gets tight, contractors who think they can remain in their comfort zone try to stick it out in the market in which they are strong. But hungrier contractors go hunting for every opportunity out there. When the economy picks up, those apparently more ambitious contractors come out of it with a larger foothold in the no--longer comfortable contractors’ customer base. Hill said, “Every time the economy enters a recession, we see a similar pattern.” I’ve ridden the economic roller coaster enough to concur.
I have also been around long enough to know that economic swings are not the only changes we confront constantly. The introduction of new products changes what customers want. Changes in technology affect what skills are needed to do a job, who can most cost-effectively do it, and what price can be reasonably charged for it. Customers are aware of these factors, too.
We also have to deal with changes in our own costs and internal processes, new regulations and standards, trends that affect our customers, and other things. And, we certainly need to be aware of what our competitors are up to. So, even if you have found a very nice niche, you’ll have to make ongoing accommodations to maintain your place in it. We all have to change or else we risk our own decline or, at best, stagnation.
We must also ensure our employees understand the need for change and are willing to help achieve it. Convincing them of the negative consequences of not changing and the positive possibilities of well-thought-out adjustments is key. That requires honest, ongoing communication with them, and it must not be limited to “good news.”
If you were thinking of providing a new service, you would tell your employees why and probably provide them fresh training and education. If you need to make less-desirable changes to ensure your company’s survival (a necessary cut-back in employee compensation, for example, or a change in assignments that doesn’t please everyone), your employees certainly need to hear why—and how the change will affect their careers long term—if you want to bring them onboard.
If there’s any question about your company’s ability to stay in business at a profit and continue to provide your workers with a great place to work for years to come (and there almost always is), some basic education in job costs might be in order for your employees. How many of them know that profit margins on an electrical project are typically in the low single digits? How many of them know about all the benefits they receive and what those benefits actually cost the company? How many of them truly understand what competition the company faces?
Ensure your employees recognize the full ramifications of this truth expressed so well by Mark Breslin, strategist and author on labor-management issues: “There is a limit to what construction owners will pay. When you exceed that limit and don’t provide value, they go to the competition.”
Tell your employees the truth. And don’t wait for them to ask for it.