When I chose to leave professional baseball behind 18 years ago and start my 2nd life as a carpenter and contractor, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into, let alone any real idea of HOW to run my business. My only background in construction watching This old house and a handful of sod and sprinkler installation jobs I had as a teenager in, Glendale CA.
Now, as a design build contractor for Jensen Hus in Natick MA, finding the right balance between the old carpenter in me and the business owner can be difficult at times. The transition from player, (the guy doing it all) to Chief Micro Manager is a constant struggle and trying to figure out what to unlearn and then relearn in order to create a new paradigm for HOW to operate my business.
Starting out, I learned by doing
When i started out, I approached every single job I landed, having little to no idea of exactly HOW I was going to do it, but by diving in head first and then seeing and feeling and touching EVERYTHING around the project, I would always figure it out. The best way to describe it, is that I would FEEL my way through it. That is how 99.9% of contractors start out and learn this business.
The skill of FEELING your way through a project is essential for the contractor that self performs his work. This includes all the trades, from carpenters to plumbers. However, as we try to transition and grow out of self performing work, we stumble. We try to articulate the process from an arm’s length, as opposed from inside the job. When we are no longer in the middle of the work, we lose that critical connection between our senses and the task itself. It’s a visceral relationship between our deeper self and the work, along with our intellect. Similar to when I stood in a batter’s box and reacted to: the situation, the pitcher, the score or the countless other stimuli happening all at once during that moment. It would be impossible to direct someone else to stand in the box as a proxy and do exactly what I would do. No matter how skillful the substitute, the result will be different 100% of the time, compared to that of doing it myself.
It took me years to understand WHY I was having this struggle.
Transitioning from player (the doer) to manager, seems natural and organic. The truth, is that the next rung up the proverbial ladder, is anything but natural. I would often find myself sitting at my desk, frozen with doubt and uncertainty, as to what to do next. These kind of moments NEVER happened when I was in the trenches of a job as the lead carpenter, as the next step was always revealing itself. This clarity that used to come so naturally, is now veiled behind the papers on my desk, my computer screen and the steering wheel, as I navigate between jobs and my office.
My original attempts to pierce this veil were thwarted by the always shifting sands of the job itself. Weather, subs, clients and every other production factor that comes to play on a project, makes even the best laid plans obsolete as the job requires constant modification. I would bang my head against the wall, as I try to get my jobs to run smoother and achieve the same level of quality that was there when I was on the ground. I would get depressed as my expectations were not met and I was continually flung into the role of fireman every day.
Acting as the sole fire fighter for my business has taken its toll. The constant stress from this role wore me blunt, as opposed to the daily sharpening I felt when I was mastering my trade from the inside. I’m not trying to glamorize wearing the belt as some Utopian work paradise, as it beat me down in other ways, yet I would have never described it as burn out, in fact, I seemed to have limitless energy during those years.
So how did I do it?
How did I transition from player to manager? The truth is I haven’t. I still am doing, what so many others do and have done before me and failed. It reminds me of Pete Rose, who, even as one of the greatest ball players of all time, tried to play the role of player/manager at the same time. This practice has since died out, as it simply proved to be ineffective in all professional sports, yet, here I am as a contractor and owner, trying to do the same damn thing!
I realize the only solution is to fire myself as a player once and for all and accept that my prime days as a carpenter are behind me and leave the actual building to younger men. Until I do this, I will probably never be able to grow my business effectively. This requires a commitment that I haven’t quite been able to pull off. Trying to unlearn my tendency to keep options open is proving difficult. It was a vital and effective trait when I was doing the work, but continuing that practice as a manager is deadly for overall productivity, because I never learn how to delegate effectively.
So now what? Curl up into a ball under the covers and rock myself to sleep? That’s one option. The answer for me is that I’m simply at the place where I can identify what IT is. It’s the devil that has been hiding in the shadows and now the light is on. The devil is still there, but now I can at least see him and start working on killing him.
He’s been causing all sorts of mischief and now things are starting to make a little more sense.
I’m good with that for now. The old me would want a 12 step program to exterminate the son of a bitch and then try to 10x my business, but the older me is content for now with just a little more understanding.
- Understanding, along with a little bit of compassion for the kid that’s still inside me, that blames himself for every screw up and every strike out.
- Understanding that beliefs, processes and paradigms take years to change, not days.
- Understanding that the transition from carpenter to manager is not a natural one and requires the acquisition of new skills as well as the decommission of old ones.
- Understanding that becoming a successful manager is more than just trading in one belt for another.
Nathan Dishington of Jensen Hus is Design Build Contractor in the Boston area specializing in contemporary building and remodeling projects and dolling out occasional, marginal advice for homeowners and contractors looking to grow themselves and their businesses [email protected]