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Standing Proud
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Standing Proud

200409BVB0

200409BVB0

No doubt about it: More and more quality projects are being designed and built by the various segments of the watershaping trades these days.

That pleases me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it tends to reinforce my observation and belief that great work is done mostly by people who take genuine pride in what they do. Indeed, I see such a consistent correlation between pride and quality that I’ve come to see the former characteristic as a prerequisite for performance at the highest level.

That may seem an obvious point, but when you scratch the surface of the subject as it relates to the watershaping industry, it takes on surprising levels of subtlety, nuance and complexity: Just how does someone get to a point where pride is based on results and consistent performance? Just how do designers and project managers transfer their pride to those who work with them? Most significant, just how do we structure our businesses so that a feeling of pride permeates the entire operation, top to bottom, and is naturally reflected in the end product?

Those are big questions with answers that are definitely worth exploring.

CONTAGIOUS SPIRIT

One of the most evident characteristics when it comes to pride is that it is infectious on both the personal and professional levels. We should all carry this particular contagion and work toward infecting others with it daily. To be able to do so, of course, we need to embody pride in what we do and radiate a positive mental attitude.

The foundations for pride and a positive attitude will differ from person to person. Some are lucky enough to have been raised by parents who instill positive values about work and education; others achieve great things almost despite their upbringings. Some reach a high level of achievement by constantly challenging themselves; others have a native talent and learn as they go – and grow.

I, for one, had great parents who taught me the value of being proud of what I do. I can also speak from experience about the pride that comes from having extended my capabilities through learning and a willingness to try new things. That willingness is something I see as a habit of success that enables me to overcome specific challenges on given projects (or sets of projects) and ultimately achieve beautiful results. This gives me a feeling of accomplishment that can be far more satisfying than simple financial rewards.

But those are highly personal issues, and what specifically drives each of us will differ from person to person. Where the subject of pride becomes far more objective and practical (and valuable) is when you consider the challenge of spreading your own pride and positive attitude to other people in a way that drives a project to success.

Fact is, watershaping is almost always a group effort. It’s expected that the designer or the owner of the contacting company will take pride in what they do, but there’s far less certainty that installation crews will share in that feeling. I often hear designers or owners complain about the difficulty of finding “good people.” When I step back and take a look at the situation, it’s painfully obvious to me that many of the individuals we hire to work in the trenches (literally and figuratively) lack any strong conviction that what they do for a living is important or a source of real pride.

Those who work in creative or managerial capacities often have the advantage of formal education and awareness of information that gives them a sense of control and of the importance of their roles. These are their foundations for pride.

The challenge for these people is to transfer their own values, pride and devotion to quality down through the ranks. In other words, a big part of creating designs and guiding complex installations to good conclusions involves infecting everyone at every level of a project with a sense of the significance of the work at hand.

ARTFUL ARTISANS

One of the big obstacles to the process of transferring pride is, I believe, the fact that in this great nation we have demeaned the status of those who get dirty and work with their hands. There’s so much emphasis on financial success and social status in our culture that we have, as a society, walked away from the idea that quality manual labor is not only honorable, but its own wellspring of pride and prestige.

Just consider the traditions of craftsmanship that have existed in European and Asian cultures for centuries. There’s a striking contrast to the way we look at things today: Where we tend to assume that people who work with their hands do so because they lack the qualifications or gumption to work in white-collar occupations or intellectual pursuits, those other cultures place value in craftsmanship – and people enter trades with the idea that they have a talent that should and must be nurtured through apprenticeship, ongoing education and practical experience.

As far as I can see, that’s a completely different outlook from the one we have in this country, and I believe the way we regard our workers has in general done everyone a disservice. More important in the context of this column, it does nothing to build pride in the work.

That’s a big issue, because the folks who lay the plumbing, install the steel, set the tile and plant the trees often spend lots of time in direct contact with our clients. If those workers take pride in what they do and our clients have the opportunity to interact with people who recognize the importance of their work, those clients get a strong message about the quality of the project and will gain confidence that the outcome will be good. What’s more, the process of getting there will unfold in a controlled, disciplined way.

By contrast, if a worker goes on site with a downtrodden or even resentful attitude about the nature of what he or she does, then even your best efforts as a designer or project manager can be completely undercut. In that sense, investing in your employees’ pride becomes a profoundly objective, practical matter – something you need to consider not just as a personal quality, but also as a business necessity and one of your highest priorities.

That’s much easier said than done, however, because we now live and work in a culture that in many respects makes sub-professional work “acceptable” and rewards excuse-making in a variety of direct and indirect ways.

TOP DOWN

To combat this ongoing and regrettable trend, we all need to act in small ways within our own operations. As I mentioned above, pride starts within each and every designer and manager. We all need to reflect pride in what we say and do, otherwise there’s no way we can convey it to others.

Once you have the right mindset, the next step is figuring out ways to make your own values a daily part of the workplace. Some of these are quite straightforward: When I ran a pool service company, for example, it was my mission to put people in the field whom I’d trust in my mother’s backyard. I set clear, workable standards for work attire, courtesy on the job site and what constituted a quality service call. These were not vague recommendations; rather, they were clear, specific requirements.

I had a sign over the door that read, “Through this door walk the world’s finest service technicians.” I believed that sentiment, and I paid my troops a wage that was higher than my competitors. But I truly believe that their income had much less to do with the quality of our service than the fact that they were backed up by a company that emphasized pride and had clear definitions of quality work.

One of the people I most admire on this front is my long-time friend Bill Kent, president of Horner Xpress, a pool-product distributor based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., as well as three manufacturing companies. He refers to his 350-plus employees as “Team Horner” – a concept he supports with a top-to-bottom business philosophy that lets everyone on staff know they have a daily stake in setting their firm apart from the competition. Their opinions and input are sought and considered on a variety of levels, and Bill does an excellent job of describing expectations in specific terms.

Company culture, however, is only part of the picture: He starts with good people who are receptive to working in such an environment – a quality he shares with others I’ve known who have been successful in creating proud organizations and one he perpetuates by hanging onto good people once they climb aboard.

I know from my own experience that taking care in the hiring process and refusing to hire those who don’t seem prepared to take pride in their work will produce the best results: In doing so, you increase your chances of success in creating a positive work environment and in building true team spirit.

INDUSTRY ATTITUDE

It’s no secret that the watershaping trades – and especially the pool/spa segment I call home – have long been saddled with an odious reputation when it comes to product quality and job-site performance. Unfortunately, that reputation has been earned over many years, and the process of turning things around under those circumstances is a long and daunting road.

I take heart in the parallel story of an altogether different industry – the restaurant business – and the way things have changed for their principal creative talents, the chefs.

Although there have always been great chefs working at famous restaurants, rank-and-file chefs and cooks were once widely considered to be little more than unskilled labor. All of that has changed in the current generation because the food and wine industry has made a huge point of educating ordinary workers. As a result, clear hierarchies have emerged, and chefs working across a wide range of establishments – big and small, famous and virtually unknown – are now respected as artists of food preparation.

Can we mirror that evolution in our own industry and, in a generation, develop a cadre of skilled designers and builders who will lead the watershaping industry to unimagined heights? Without dipping into one of my familiar diatribes about the importance of education, I don’t see how we’ll ever be able to elevate our collective pride and performance until we embrace the idea of training a new generation of hands-on designers, managers and craftspeople with great seriousness.

Perhaps I’m spinning a fanciful yarn here, but I’d love to see some sort of apprentice program take root in our industry. Think how much good it would do everyone if those who installed tile, lighting systems, interior surfaces or rockwork were trained to a set of specific educational standards. Think of the benefit of having trained designers and lead contractors who, like the chefs in good restaurants, really know their stuff.

Short of that, we’re all left with the challenge I outlined in the first sections of this column and with finding ways to infect our lives and our businesses with the pride that comes from doing the best we possibly can. That’s a task none of us will ever be able to set aside, andI suspect it wouldn’t disappear even if every one of us needed the equivalent of a doctorate in order to do what we do.

As a starting point, it’s important to recognize a simple fact: The honor and nobility of labor at any level is not conveyed by the size of the paycheck or the prestige of the project, but rather by the knowledge that no matter the task at hand, the work represents the best possible effort. Once we know and embrace that concept, we open the door to letting pride become as integral to our work as the water itself.

Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of Genesis 3, A Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders. He can be reached at [email protected]

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