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MELANIE HODGDON: Recently, I was working with the owner of a roofing and siding company who was in the process of switching from running his crew to running his business. Complicating the challenge of naming a supervisor who was both technically competent and a good manager was the problem of seniority.

I had no idea how highly valued seniority could be until I worked with a company for which I had to put together a job assignment board. On the board, I listed the employees alphabetically, which seemed logical to me, but the owner took one look and said, “Oh, that will never work. The boys will be offended.” I soon learned that every employee list had to be arranged by date of hire, with the most recent hire at the bottom.

For the roofing company, this attitude toward seniority meant that, unless an internal candidate for supervisor also happened to have been with the company longest, he would likely be perceived to have been unfairly promoted. Seniority issues can only be overcome by someone who demonstrates extraordinary technical skills or who has exceptionally strong management and leadership skills. Anyone in between will face an uphill climb to acceptance by the crew.

You may not be able to avoid this problem altogether, but you can make for a smoother transition. Give your crew some advance notice about your plans to hire someone to replace you in the field, and make sure the crew understands that this person’s job is not just technical but includes paperwork and communication with the office and perhaps the homeowner.

Melanie Hodgdon, owner of Business Systems Management, works with clients to generate realistic solutions that reflect the resources and style of their companies.

TIM FALLER: The move from field to office represents a shift from leadership by example to leadership from afar. In the best scenario, the business owner has time to transfer responsibility in increments through side-by-side on-the-job training. If time is short, next best is to put into place the person who is best-suited for the job of managing the crew. This is almost never the best technical person on the crew; but, unfortunately, promoting someone who has people skills and leadership potential but no technical skills is equally disastrous.

The best person for the job is someone who has both good leadership skills and good tech skills. Having both types of skills is more important to winning over the team than being “the best” at either.

Even with the right person, however, several negative consequences are inevitable.

  • Productivity will temporarily drop
  • because when the owner leaves, his authority leaves with him. Until his replacement earns the full respect of the crew, the job will not progress as smoothly as it once did. Alternatively, if the owner promotes someone from within but neglects to replace that person with a new hire, that means one less person working the job.
  • Change creates dissatisfaction.
  • In many cases, it will be “my best guy” who becomes unhappy and leaves for greener pastures. In my experience, though, the company will recover and often may fare better than before.
  • There is no foolproof method.
  • Success sometimes comes through trial and error. That argues for making this kind of change when there is time to go through several people before finding the right fit.
  • Tim Faller is president of Field Training Services, in Westerly, R.I., and is author of The Lead Carpenter Handbook.