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New manager should speak his partners' language

Lynne Curry

Q. I've recently moved from a large, well-run construction company headquartered in another state to a smaller but solid company in Alaska. I made the decision because I had the chance to buy in as an owner, and my wife's parents live here.

While my new partners welcomed me aboard and gave me the mandate "grow the business," they balk every time I try to make changes.

If we're to grow, we need to land federal contracts. This means my partners need to let me schedule face time for them with prospective clients and allow me to overhaul antiquated contracting and invoicing procedures. Also, while our superintendents or project managers have good work ethics, they're good old boys and can be like bulls in a china shop who occasionally stomp on situations they need to handle with finesse. When I tell my partners these guys need training, they tell me the guys have "been in the trenches for years," and "settle down, you've got all these big company ideas."

I didn't expect to have to sell my partners on the basics. I'm getting frustrated because they've told me they want to grow but hamstring me at every juncture.

A. Managers brought in to grow companies often don't succeed.

"Even when a company's owners say they want something," said Alaska-based organizational strategist Arielle Schram, "they still need to be convinced in cost- benefit terms."

Schram suggested you pitch your ideas according to your partners' values, noting when you hear you're "too big company" it means you don't understand how your partners are hearing what you say.

As an example, said Schram, when you say, "Let's increase our business by meeting with future clients," your partners may hear "Let's take time away from our current clients," or "Let's add to our already full workloads."

The seasonal nature of a construction company compounds the difficulty, Schram said, because "the revenue your company makes during peak season carries it through the winter months."

Schram suggested you tackle this reality head on by saying, "We're really busy right now, however I'm proposing we add new legs to our business that both create revenue during down cycles and add revenue next summer. We can't afford to delay if we want to grow."

Next, your partners may not realize federal contracts can launch your company into a whole new ball game -- one they can't play until they repair the cracks in their antiquated contracting and accounting systems and supervisory practices. "Are they prepared to have federal regulatory agencies turn the spotlight on their hiring practices, record keeping and fiscal management procedures?" asked Schram.

If you want to change your partners' thinking, talk dollars and cents. In the area of supervisory training, a three-hour session can save millions of lawsuit dollars.

Last month, Whirlpool paid more than $1 million to settle a race and sex harassment claim by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Why? Because a white male harassed an African-American female co-worker, and supervisors did nothing to stop it.

In March, Fed Ex coughed up $3 million to job seekers they didn't hire when the Department of Labor ruled their hiring practices were faulty.

According to an Office of Federal Contract Compliance spokesperson, "Being a federal contractor is a privilege and means you absolutely, positively cannot discriminate, not when you are profiting from taxpayer dollars."

Schram's advice in a nutshell: Have a heart-to-heart with your partners in which you speak their language.

Dr. Lynne Curry is a management/employee trainer and owner of the Anchorage consulting firm The Growth Company. She can be reached at her company web site,