I’ve had the privilege of working in an industry that became my life’s passion for more than 20 years now. Along the way, I have learned and experienced much from my days working for organizations, running my own, leading an association, contributing to builder and education counsels, leading/attending training in other parts of the country and more. I have been a student from day one absorbing experiences along the way.   

Through all these years, I’ve learned that succeeding in business (or even in life), more than anything else, is all about building positive human relationships. Those relationships, be it with clients or the people I either worked for/with, have brought me a great deal of experience along with perspective as to why some organizations thrive and others just manage to get by.  

Business success at its most basic level is people success. The more successful your team is, the more successful your business will be. To put it another way: People build businesses, businesses do not build businesses. 

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That means companies that value their human resources, instead of looking at them like parts of a machine, are going to be more successful than those that don’t, with few exceptions.

But while this basic idea might seem obvious, it’s amazing how many organizations don’t value their people. And interestingly, these same companies often don’t value their customers, let alone the many tradespeople, sub-contractors and vendors that are all part of a bigger whole.

This industry and the wonderful products we design and build for clients are, at the end of the day, delivered because of relationships that we building and develop. Your clients should be ambassadors and outside salespeople to a degree. Employees who love their jobs and feel appreciated also become the same.

All of us have been in workplaces where people show up to work and look and act like robots. They’re not engaged, they’re not motivated, they watch the clock and can’t wait to leave. They don’t like some or all of their co-workers and do only the bare minimum to earn their pay. Those places have an atmosphere that’s often depressing — it’s hard to imagine how those accomplish anything.

That constant state of fear and loathing in the workplace is toxic, and harms both individuals and organizations.

In toxic workplaces, you see management that acts authoritatively with a “my way or the highway” attitude. This reinforces a negative company culture and breeds distrust, stress, resentment, anger, high absenteeism and high employee turnover.

I’ve worked in such places before and it wasn’t much fun, to say the least. In fact, the anxiety and frustration resulting from the unhealthy workplace experience has been tough to get past at times.

What I’ve learned from these experiences is that a toxic environment is always a leadership issue. Always. Your team is ultimately a reflection of your management style. So ask yourself: Is my management style working? And be honest, as the answer impacts profitability, accountability and growth.

If that all sounds downbeat, there’s shiny side to the same coin. There are those organizations that take the exact opposite approach, which starts with the realization that your employees are also your greatest assets — or at least they can be when you value and respect their time, effort and contributions.

The most successful business leaders realize they have a responsibility — and more importantly, an opportunity — to elevate their employees by helping them become as good at what they do as they can. This can only help your bottom line.

Let’s talk about training. In the pool construction business, and really in all contracting, there’s a common fear that if you educate an employee, you’re essentially training your future competition. There’s also the fear that educated employees will demand greater compensation. This misconception results in leaders passing on only the most essential knowledge to do a job and nothing more.

In a people-oriented company, training is an ongoing process because investing in education improves performance and the ability to take on responsibility. It also signals to the employee that there’s opportunity for advancement, which inevitably cleaves the worker to the company and the tasks at hand.

Closely related is the concept of personal responsibility and trust. The best leaders seek employees who can be trusted to take ownership of tasks and problems. When an employee believes management trusts them to take on a problem or a new project, and they’ve been given a measure of leeway to enact their own ideas, they will be far more likely to take on a sense of pride and ownership of the outcome. By contrast, when they’re simply told how to go at a problem with no opportunity for input, they are more apt to do only the bare minimum and not worry about the result.

Another question to ask yourself: Do I give enough feedback? Great companies have mechanisms for feedback and dialogue between all levels of the organization. It can provide invaluable input that leads to improvements and solutions in everything from who makes the coffee in the break room to how manufacture and market a new product. And most of all, the opportunity to give input helps the employee believe they are of value.

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On a similar note, handling grievances is an area where trust and empowerment can be instilled. All organizations should have a mechanism where complaints are submitted, heard and considered. That doesn’t mean every gripe results in some kind of change, but all employees should be able to submit complaints without fear of reprisal. When problems fester, the negativity spreads and can infect an entire organization. When employees believe they have a means of recourse, they are far less likely to feel anxious and blow off steam by venting to their co-workers.

Finally, consider mutual respect. The guy who sweeps the floors or the woman who answers the phones is as important as the executives with the corner offices. In business, there is no such thing as an insignificant contribution. The most respected managers I know are those who value hard work at all levels of the operation.

In a business like ours that by design gives clients a highly personal experience, it only makes sense to instill everyone in the organization with the belief that to succeed, people must come first.