Hiring for your painting business

A common complaint among painting contractors is the difficulty in finding good help. In fact, this is a common complaint among all small business owners.

This can be a cause of great frustration. Employees who can’t cut in properly, don’t understand how to prep, or simply waste time can slow production and reduce customer satisfaction. Yet, if we want to grow our business we must hire painters and helpers.

From my perspective the problem isn’t really a lack of good employees. The problem lies within our business. The problem is most likely in the mirror. There are 4 key components to finding and retaining good employees:

  1. Our Definite Chief Aim
  2. Our hiring and training practices
  3. Our company culture
  4. The systems and procedures within our company

Each of these requires that we identify the type of employee we want and need. Each requires that we establish policies and procedures for how we will operate our business. Each requires a vision of the kind of company we wish to own.

It is impossible to lead if we don’t know where we are going. We will appear disorganized and uncertain. We can’t communicate our direction and how we will get there. To effectively lead a company we must first identify our personal goals and how the business will help us accomplish those goals. Only then can we begin to share our vision and lead others.

Acting like a businessman

I was recently visiting with a customer and while discussing the issues involved in a painting project, he commented that a lot of things can go wrong. And, he added, “I am aware that there are a lot of people out their impersonating a painter.” I didn’t correct him, but I would put it differently: “There are a lot of painting contractors impersonating a businessman.”

As I have said many times, there is much more to owning a paint contracting business than painting. You must be able to estimate accurately, know how to price the job profitably, manage production, juggle the myriad tasks that demand your attention, manage cash flow, and much, much more. These requirements have little to do with actually putting paint on the wall. And yet, the success of your business demands that you perform these tasks with some level of competency.

As Michael Gerber points out in the E-Myth, many business owners get started because they are gripped by “entrepreneurial seizure”. They decide that they can run a better business than their boss, or they get tired of taking orders, or they believe that the path to riches lies in owning their own company. So they declare that they are going into business.

Just as a skilled craftsman requires certain skills and knowledge, so a successful business owner requires certain skills and knowledge. To pretend otherwise is not only naive, but a sure invitation for failure.

Over the years, I have worked with or observed hundreds of contractors. While the details vary, these contractors can be placed into two categories: businessmen and those who are impersonating a businessman. Invariably, the former focuses his efforts on marketing, sales, and finance, while the latter focuses on the technical aspects of his trade.

There is nothing inherently wrong with impersonating a businessman, so long as one is honest about it. And if impersonations aren’t your thing, then take the steps necessary to change your status.

Placing one’s name on the side of a van no more makes one a businessman than sitting in a hen house makes one a chicken.

Get your crew rolling

If you have ever hired employees, at some point you have likely experienced a feeling that the employee was simply not in agreement with your goals and vision. Either he doesn’t exhibit the same conscientiousness, or doesn’t possess the same work ethic, or he lacks motivation, or something similar. In short, he isn’t rowing in the same direction as you. Get Everyone in Your Boat Rowing in the Same Direction addresses the cause of this, as well as the solution.

Individuals are ultimately motivated by what they regard as important, that is, what they value. Their values determine their actions, their motivation, their work ethic, and many other characteristics. When employees possess values that differ from the owner (and the business) they are essentially rowing in a different direction.

The result is frustration, slow progress (if any progress), and a lot of stress. Every stroke you take forward is offset by their stroke in a different direction.

Many owners go through this process a number of times. They often try different tactics to try to change their employees. They might try playing nice guy, or running a very tight ship, or a number of other methods.  But ultimately, many throw up their hands in despair. “I can’t find good help,” they declare, and swear to never hire another employee. They keep their business small, because they conclude that they can count on nobody but themselves.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. An owner does not have to resign himself to staying in the bucket, or accepting reckless, uncaring employees.

If individuals are motivated by their values, the solution is to find employees who share your values. If values determine the direction we are rowing, then shared values are the key to rowing in the same direction.

This does not mean that employees must have values that are in perfect alignment with yours. If you like golf and he likes baseball, it likely won’t impact your working relationship. But the basic values must be shared. For example, if customer service is important to you, your employees must share this value.

Because we posses free will, it is possible to change our values. It is possible that an employee can embrace your values and make them his own. But this is not something that we should count on, and it can be a major source of problems. It is far better, and more effective, to find employees who already share your basic values. In other words, don’t try to impose your values on your employees—hire individuals who already hold them.

Of course, this requires some effort on the front end—during the hiring process. More importantly, it requires some thought and effort on your part before you ever begin looking for an employee.

Before you can identify the values that you want in an employee, you must first identify your own values. This is not a casual exercise—it requires some careful thought. Often, we hold our values as loose approximations. But we must explicitly identify those values if we hope to be able to express them. We must be clear about what is important to us if we are to share that information with others, and find employees who share those values.

Secondly, we must identify the values of our business. While it would seem that our business would reflect our personal values, this is not always the case. Often, the values of our business get molded by others—employees, customers, and perhaps vendors. Often, the stated values are different from the values expressed in action. We must be certain that if our business values are not in alignment with our personal values, we make the necessary changes.

Again, we need to be clear and explicit about the values of our business—what is important in the context of the business. Only then can we begin to seek employees who share those values.

It is important to realize that this isn’t necessarily an issue of right and wrong. There are many legitimate values that a business can hold. (There are certainly some wrong values—such as cheating customers.) The goal is to identify the facts. Then, if our business values are unacceptable we can begin to change them.

Identifying potential employees who share our values is both an art and a science. Doing so requires asking open ended questions, and then carefully listening to the answers. Questions such as:

What is important to you?

What did you like about your last job?

How would you handle …?

These allow the candidate to express his values, often in subtle ways.

When the values of the owner, the business, and the employees are in alignment, everyone is rowing in the same direction. The owner can set the goal, and everyone will help to get the boat there. Not only is that a lot less frustrating, you can get where you are going a lot faster.

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