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Coaches don't always demand more push-ups

The last time construction executive David Speigel worked with a coach, it involved athletics "and a lot of push-ups."

So he was intrigued by what a workplace coach might teach him in the way of becoming a better manager, especially to the men who arise at 5 a.m. every day to work, often in miserable weather, building homes for Tribute Communities.

It was definitely more invigorating than push-ups, he says of the experience, which ultimately involved all 200 employees of the Pickering, Ont.-based home builder - the fellows in hard-hats and safety boots, the women who work in decor, the number crunchers and the sales, marketing and customer-service teams.

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Tribute is among the nearly 40 per cent of Canadian employers that offer coaching to staff, according to a Conference Board of Canada report released this week. The board said in its report that coaching programs are a popular form of career development and an effective way of developing employees' skills.

Tribute had always been great at building homes, Mr. Speigel said, but the competition is getting sharper, the market is getting tougher, and the company felt it needed outside help "to stay on top of its game."

Now, a year after retaining performance and leadership coach Eileen Chadnick of Toronto-based Big Cheese Coaching, Tribute has been recognized by the International Coach Federation for business excellence in coaching. The company has won several industry awards for building houses. Its coaching award, for "building character," will be presented later this month.

The impact has been profound on the quality of decision-making, teamwork and communication at all levels of the company, says Mr. Speigel, vice-president of construction and operations at Tribute.

Employees have been entrusted to make decisions, within the framework of the company's stated core values, without always going to higher levels for approval.

Everyone knows those core values, he adds, because everyone in the company was involved - first, in defining what values have most contributed to the company's success, and then in determining how to incorporate those values in the way they conduct themselves.

Ms. Chadnick says the process is not about creating new core values. "We went excavating for what already exists - how did the company become so successful, what are the principles it stands for?"

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Few companies actually articulate their guiding principles because they assume they are understood, Ms. Chadnick says. "When you start putting them in words, it allows you to pay closer attention."

Mr. Speigel says a company-wide exercise came up with the following core values: "Make it happen; passion, compelling desire to improve, respect, trust, ownership and working together."

For these words to actually become part of day-to-day practice, managers had to learn when to back off and let the front-line employees make on-the-spot decisions about the right thing to do.

This involves trust - and respect - so that employees know they can make decisions without later being berated or second-guessed, Mr. Speigel says.

"We have to trust people to take ownership of a problem and do the right thing," adds decor manager Cindy Kunz. "And you know what? They haven't blown it."

Instead of going through the time-consuming process of getting approval for every single decision, "our people have the ability now, and the back-up, to make decisions."

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For a manager, "letting go" is sometimes difficult, Ms. Kunz concedes. However, the increase in individual autonomy has made Tribute Communities function more cohesively as a company.

In the year-long coaching initiative quarterbacked by Ms. Chadnick, Tribute employees learned communication and teamwork skills in addition to decision-making skills.

"We had a scenario the other day where working together came together beautifully," Ms. Kunz says. "We had the decor consultant - one of my girls - we had one of the site guys come in, and we had the purchaser. We were putting an elevator in for this purchaser and everybody sat together and worked it out exactly the way he wanted.

"He walked out of here thrilled. We're a fairly large production builder, but he felt he was getting a customized home, and that made him feel really good."

The men on the sites carry BlackBerry devices now, along with their more traditional tools of the trade.

If a customer wants an update on progress or wonders if a wall can be moved, "the guys on the site will e-mail back within seconds," Ms. Kunz says.

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