Leadership is a vague term that’s thrown around a lot with little substance or real understanding. Believe it or not, being a better leader as owner or upper management in your company is one of the most valuable qualities you have to offer as a small business. Let’s start with some definitions that clarify the difference between leadership and management.

Management is about control. It’s about staying on top of the day-to-day details required to run a business. The only thing you can really control is time, quality and money. Don’t get me wrong, good management is important, but it shouldn’t be confused with good leadership. One might argue you can control people short-term by managing behavior, but it’s difficult. As employers, we can, to some degree, force people to do what’s expected through work rules, pay and systems. However, a forced employee isn’t necessarily an inspired employee. 

Leadership is about people. It’s the skill of influencing people to build a common commitment to organization goals. Leaders gain commitment rather than compliance. Leaders create an environment where employees feel like they’re part of the solution. Through communication, leaders reinforce where the company is going and build employee engagement.

A quote I like to use is, “Management without leadership is like aligning the deck chairs on the Titanic; in the big picture, it really doesn’t matter.”

Contractors must sharpen their leadership skills because it’s the single greatest employment advantage a small employer has over a large company. Day-to-day employees at Ford Motor Company don’t get to interact with someone named Ford or an executive of the company. Warren Buffet owns dozens of companies but no one really expects to work with him daily. At a small business, ownership can interact with employees hands-on and build a better organization.  

With such low unemployment, people are leaving jobs at record numbers. Earlier this year, Money magazine reported employee job changes were at a nine-year high.  With unemployment hovering near four percent, the “take this job and shove it” attitude is growing.  In fact, many economists consider full employment to be around four percent as that’s the amount of people working at any given time. 

Contractors have to change their attitude and interaction styles to attract and keep good people. Too many contractors are buried in the day-to-day and are quick to point fault to what goes wrong but slow to sing company praises or success. Many don’t know how to have a leadership conversation and confuse leadership practices with reviews. 

Practicing better leadership has little to do with the often-dreaded practice of giving employee reviews and discussing pay. It’s not about the individual employee but rather about where the company is going and strategically what’s needed. Employees like to work at a place that’s succeeding and moving forward but employers tend to focus on the negative. 

Don’t confuse niceties, company parties and being a good guy with leadership. Leadership is about respect, not friendship. It’s about gaining commitment and engaging those around you to jump on the company bandwagon. It’s about feeling good about where you work and believing in the company. Yeah, yeah I know what you’re thinking, this is all a waste of time and you don’t understand construction people. People are people. Everyone wants to be appreciated. If you don’t pay attention to your spouse, you stand a chance of losing him or her. If you don’t pay attention to your employees, you stand a chance of losing them. And I know as a small business owner, employees can hurt your feelings and it’s hard not to take things personally. But don’t punish everyone for the sins of a few. Here are some things to work on and consider when making your place a better organization.

Publish your successes. Make known when the company does well and why you appreciate everyone’s efforts. If you have unique large jobs, take photos of them and give prints to the crew and customers. It’s easy and inexpensive to do.

Share things that are changing in the company such as software, new equipment methods, etc. Let people know what’s going on and why. Too often we do things like put GPS on trucks and employees merely think we’re checking up on them. Explain that it helps with safety, vehicle theft and insurance.

If rain, a unique job or other circumstances demand overtime and an extra commitment, explain what’s going on and that it’s a temporary situation. Remember, people will make an extra effort in unusual circumstances but if you ask them over and over to run that extra mile, they’ll eventually give up. 

Talk one-on-one with people. Shake their hand. Have good eye contact. Show some interest. Tell them where the company is going and ask them how they see things. Try to gather information from the bottom up. Remember, if one person said it was a problem, it may not be. If everyone says it’s a problem, it’s a problem, even if it’s only about perception and not the real facts.

Think about what it’s like to work for you. Is it push, push and all negative? Would you work for you?  Would you want your kids to work for you long-term? Contracting pace today is fast and hectic. Texts and emails make it even more demanding but take time to smell the roses, share some success and interact. You don’t want to become a member of the “take this job and shove it” club.