Trade Skills Are Not Enough…Part I

To launch a business and lead it beyond the first five years, you need to be an innovative leader.
Originally Published in HVACR Business Magazine.

Johnny was the best hvacr service technician and installer in town. He entered all the contests and won many awards. There was nothing Johnny couldn’t install or service. He enjoyed a good steady income, but had dreams of really making a lot more money. After thinking it through, Johnny decided to leave his job and start his own business. His boss tried to talk him into staying, but his grand dream of being his own boss inspired him to go.

The first few months couldn’t have been better. Doing work for family and friends, even taking a fishing trip with a buddy. Life was good. Throughout the next few months, however, the phone didn’t ring much and that steady paycheck never arrived. Johnny hired an assistant to help carry equipment. Unfortunately, he couldn’t provide steady work or benefits, so his employee turnover was high. Johnny also learned that accouting work was difficult, and that there was never enough money at the end of the month to pay bills. Marketing and advertising were on his list, but turned out to be too costly to implement.

His old pick-up truck with a cap was fine at first, but Johnny found that it was not perceived as professional by new customers. So, Johnny eventually joined the 64 percent of business owners that close their doors within the first five years of business. He became a statistic and went back to work for his previous employer.

Why did Johnny fail? He was a great technician and installer, and had all the trade skills he thought he needed to run a company. Right? Wrong! What Johnny didn’t realize until it was too late was that his technical competence only took him 10 percent of the way toward success. What he really needed was more business skills.

Some hvacr businesses have a Johnny running them, and have made it past the five-year mark. But they are barely getting by and dread going into the office each day. Some companies have second or third generation family members running things and are struggling to stay afloat. What do they need and what are they lacking? For the most successful companies, there is a leader in place who is innovative. To start a new hvacr company or take an existing one to the next level, there has to be one or more dedicated, passionate and visionary individuals who think and act boldly. This is the essence of innovative leadership. Here are some examples:

Leaders have a sense of urgency. Regardless of company size, they understand the importance of speed, responsiveness and agility. These traits are essential for innovative leaders who analyze situations, make decisions and act on opportunities. They’d rather make a wrong decision than blow a potential opportunity by cautiously sitting still and playing it safe until more information is gathered. In the hvacr business, reacting quickly and responding to customer needs are imperative for success. At McAfee, the phone must never ring more than twice before it’s answered. Our first call for the day has a guaranteed arrival time of 8 a.m., and every customer receives a courtesy call before arrival. A “no heat” or “no cool” call is put at the top of the list and takes priority over all others.

Leaders also find that motivating and inspiring others is very important. Innovative leaders first get people excited, then committed and then get them moving swiftly. They tap into the professional aspects of coworkers work want to achieve success and know what “buttons to push” to generate team pride, drive and perseverance. If everything is the owner’s idea, it can get pretty boring for the rest of the team. At McAfee, we empower coworkers to use their creativity and innovation through many channels including company meetings, shared ideas, new customer procedures or other methods. This accomplishes two very important things: It makes people feel good about themselves, and feel even better about what they are accomplishing.

Innovative leaders are very passionate about what they do. They are incredibly driven, which rubs off on their employees. Leaders express emotions openly and showcase their excitement about new ideas. At times, they may even get upset because they are going at warp speed and believe so strongly in business progression and growth, that others either have to get on board or get out of the way. E.M. Forster once said, “One person with passion is better than 40 people merely interested.”

Leaders are opportunists. Innovative leaders aggressively seek out and move on opportunities before others are even aware of their existence. They are interested in spending time with other successful people, and are well-rounded readers. They’re always asking questions like, “How does ‘this’ apply to my organization?” “How can I use it or get ideas from it?” “How does this help me improve?”

They are future-seekers. The beckoning horizon ahead excites leaders. Someone once said that ”dissatisfaction and discouragement are not caused by the absence of things, but the absence of vision.” Innovative leaders visualize their organization’s future and plot its course. They are not concerned about yesterday’s trophies, but are always asking themselves what’s next for the company. They create the future by visualizing it in the present.

Leaders are not afraid to take risks. You won’t find innovative leaders thinking small. Plans are grandiose and their dreams and actions are big and daring. They seek progress and aren’t afraid to take smart, calculated risks. These are people who create solid, and sometimes very large companies. Not by cautiously holding back, but by boldly staying ahead of the average crowd.

How much risk have you taken lately? About six years ago, McAfee went 100 percent private. During that time, our gross revenue increased by more than 100 percent. It was a risk worth taking, and our goal is to double every five to six years. I’m reminded of what former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson once asked, ”Do you want to be safe and good, or do you want to take a chance and be great?”

Innovative leadership is a must for every successful company. Those companies are then admired for the huge contributions they make in the lives of employees, customers and the community. Strong leaders are moving to far away, exciting destinations.

Greg McAfee founded McAfee Heating & Air Conditioning Co., Inc. in 1990 when he was just 27 years old. More than 19 years later, he is a leader in the residential HVAC market in Dayton, Ohio. Greg now consults and teaches others how to succeed.