Give your people common cents

May 04, 2020

Make your business more sustainable and build a loyal team by training your people to manage themselves and their projects the way you would.

I once had an employee arrive on a job site three hours away from the office, and then call me freaking out because they forgot some tools/materials they needed for the job. They had already turned around to come back to the office and wanted to know if someone could meet them halfway so they could still finish the job that day. When I asked what they forgot, I realized they could buy it all from a home improvement store for around $100, so I directed them to go there instead.

When they arrived, they called me again: “I found what I need but it’s kind of expensive!” I responded, “You know what’s expensive? Paying for you to drive a gas guzzling pickup truck six hours round trip twice! Just buy the stuff and don’t sweat it.” I walked them through the cost comparison of the two options and we both agreed it was a no-brainer. It was in that moment I realized that sometimes what we think are easy decisions are not so simple to people who do not share our knowledge or perspective. Just giving them rules of thumb and draconian policies to follow does not allow them to see the big picture, and it definitely does not foster ownership of the projects they work on.

We hear the old standby “lead by example,” and that is certainly important, but equally important is sharing your management philosophy with the people you lead. Let them know how you manage your own tasks and projects, what you expect them to take care of independently, and when you might prefer they look for support. Train your people to manage themselves and their projects the way you would.

As demonstrated in the anecdote above, one way to share your management philosophy is to simply justify decisions to your employees by sharing your decision-making process. We often justify decisions internally to ourselves, or present a business case to our superiors – why not do the same with your employees? If you can’t justify a decision to yourself, much less to your boss, how can you justify it to your people? Otherwise, it may be time to rethink that decision.

When your people come to you with a question, don’t just give them the answer – help them determine your answer. Explain to them how working on a Saturday to finish that field assignment before traveling home saves the company a ton of money, and reciprocate by allowing them to trade that dedication in for a weekday of their choosing off that they can spend doing something they enjoy. Next thing you know, you will see your employees making those kinds of cost-saving decisions on their own. Encourage your people to think outside the box about ways to get the job done faster or more efficiently. When they come up with ideas that realize savings, show them how good the numbers on that project ended up, maybe even throw a small spot bonus their way if possible, or take them out for lunch as a thank you.

It all comes down to helping your employees understand how your business model works. What metrics and assumptions the model is built on, and how certain decisions positively or negatively impact the viability of your model. If your business model is reasonable and sustainable, profitability is adequate, and you have capable staff, it should not be hard to create an environment where all your employees understand how the model works and strive to maintain it.

For example, some employees may be afraid to be too efficient. They have been conditioned to start worrying about their job the second they are non-billable. If they know you have 100 hours budgeted on a project, they make sure to bill (and “work”) all of them to maximize their utilization. Our business model is not built on management by utilization – there are too many ways to pad the numbers! If an employee can complete the task in 80 hours instead and not have to work overtime those weeks – great! If they are available to help on another project as a result – even better! If not, maybe they can catch a breather and help with some other internal initiative for a day or two. Let them know the money saved by their efficiency on the project can help pay for some down time, and there are plenty of opportunities in the pipeline to keep them busy. That way they aren’t stuck stressing and looking at job postings when that last-minute rush project pops up on a Thursday afternoon; they are ready to tackle it.

This also hinges on creating a business model your employees can get on board with. If your model relies on everyone averaging 50 billable hours a week to squeeze out a few percent profit, you’re already losing the game. It is not sustainable, and you are not going to build a loyal, dedicated team that way. If you cannot justify it to yourself, maybe it’s time to rethink things.

Jeremy Hamm, P.E., is the geotechnical services manager at Falcon Engineering, Inc. He can be reached at

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