Quick Note: We’re set to close on our 3rd business acquisition next week. Within that same period of time it’s very possible our daughter will make a slightly early arrival and be born. Needless to say, life will get even busier than usual. I’ll likely take at least a month off from this newsletter and just wanted to give a heads up. I appreciate y'all for reading along.
I think back often to my first job out of college. I got a Mechanical Engineering degree and went to work for Thermo King as a Project Manager. I worked in their aftermarket group mostly focused on new product development (NPD). I wasn’t technically anyone’s manager, but my job was to lead a cross functional team (engineering, design, marketing, supply chain, etc.) to design and launch new products. In other words managing by influence rather than because you’re the boss.
We successfully launched several products, a few in record times of 4 months or less. Some were projects that had been stalled for months if not years, but we were able to push them forward to a successful completion and launch. I recall getting a big head for a bit, thinking “I must be really good at this, look at these peers of mine in engineering who couldn’t lead a team to complete these projects over the past several years.”
What I started to notice though was that most of my peers had been engineers at Thermo King for several years. They had deep expertise and knowledge. People stopped by their cubicles nonstop to ask questions, and their phones rang with people needing their technical expertise. I’m sure they received plenty of email requests for information as well. I had plenty of distraction free, uninterrupted time. It dawned on me that what I was doing wasn’t rocket science. I was creating schedules, leading meetings, following up with people, and just coordinating all aspects of the projects. Now I do think I was naturally effective in that role, but I really benefited from not having the specialized knowledge in that business and industry to where I was relied upon to have all the answers. I could more easily focus on a few top priorities.
To bring it full circle, I see this same dynamic at play in my current role leading a rollup of home services businesses, and in small and medium sized business (SMB) in general. In our first 2 acquisitions (and the 3rd that’s around the corner), not just the owners, but almost all of the management started in the blue-collar trades and progressed from there. Most often that’s as a plumbing or HVAC service technician or installer. Then they might move into sales, then say a warehouse manager, field supervisor, or service manager. And then a select few move into even higher levels of management in a growing organization.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying this is a bad thing. In fact I think it’s necessary up to a certain point. When you’re a small business and running lean and mean, you need managers that can hop in a truck if necessary and replace a condenser. But just like my first job at Thermo King, this dynamic starts to become a limiting factor to growth. It’s really difficult to work “on the business” when you’re constantly getting pulled in to work “in the business.”
I saw this just the other day. We have a developing leader on one of our teams. He manages other managers, something I’ve written about before and is an entirely different animal than managing individual contributors. He’s doing some great things but still learning how to effectively lead in that role, and at scale with such a large team and business. I overheard him on the phone with a newer technician, coaching him on how to troubleshoot a system that wasn’t cooling. It was honestly a work of art, he was so effective at explaining things and helping the technician think through what could be causing the issue.
But…once he hung up the phone, I challenged him on what led up to him fielding that call and helping that technician out. See there’s a lead technician designated to be the first line of defense in helping a technician who’s struggling. The second line of defense is the service manager, and this guy would be the third option. He admitted that he hadn’t asked the technician if he’d tried option one or two. I can totally understand why, he was clearly so good at coaching that technician through that technical issue, that in the moment that brings more fulfillment than probably any other task on his plate. I do that all the time too, we all do…drifting towards what’s comfortable vs. what’s the highest and best use of our limited time.
What To Do
So, all that being said, what’s one to do when facing this dynamic in leading an SMB that wants to continue to grow. As with all things, I think it’s a fine balance. I think you need the subject matter experts who have the experience and the answers. But I also think you need to start sprinkling in some high caliber outsiders. These would be extremely talented individuals who came from a different industry. They might be a great leader, but not be all that familiar with HVAC or plumbing. Mike Botkin who’s an SMB landscape operator has talked about one of his best hires being a General Manager from Chick-fil-A. If you can then get the outsiders working well with the trade experts, I think that’s where the magic can happen and you can do some big things.
I also think leadership, time management, communication, or other training for folks who came up through the ranks and have deep technical knowledge can be helpful. On the spot coaching like the example I gave earlier is also important, to help leaders see where they are letting themselves get sucked into something that they could have delegated.
This was a bit more stream of thought, and less organized than a typical article of mine, but if you made it to this point I hope you took at least one thing away from it.
Below are some of the favorite things I’ve come across the last few weeks:
- Rebuilding Scar Tissue by Guesswork Investing
– This is one of the best SMB newsletters I’ve come across and this was one of my favorite articles. I thought the phrase “scar tissue” was perfect for a dynamic I’ve seen time and again in our first 2 acquisitions
– I wouldn’t say this was a great story or film-making masterpiece, but it was pure action and entertainment. We watched it streaming on Peacock. I’d recommend this for an evening you want to turn your brain off and just watch something fast paced and action packed
– One of my new weekend rituals is turning on a cartoon or Disney movie with my toddler son. Most of the time it’s just background noise for me and I’m not really into it, but this one was really good. We watched on Disney + and the story was compelling, there was some good humor, a great movie for all ages
· HVAC Humor Twitter Post
- Decoldest Crawford HVAC Deal
– As someone who runs an HVAC business, I’m definitely a little jealous of having a guy named Decoldest sponsor your company
· Quote – Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought. John F. Kennedy