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What’s the Story with Construction?

This article is from Talent Management Review, Winter 2009/10.

Fred Story, founder of Story Construction finds that communicating with your employees is the key to improving business.

A loss of confidence and sense of nervousness amongst employers in the construction industry has meant many businesses cutting back on spending and the Government putting numerous regeneration projects on hold. As a result, major challenges have been created for those in this industry and as the sheer volume of work has dramatically reduced the working environment has naturally become much more competitive.

Construction is a huge sector which, according to the DTI, employs 7% of the UK's workforce. In 2006, it provided 2.2 million jobs and whilst jobs have been lost due to the economic downturn, that figure is expected to increase to over 2.8 million by 2011¹. The sector therefore faces the challenge of coping with the downturn whilst preparing to up-skill and increase the workforce in the future.

At Story Construction, profits were down by £3 million last year which really brought home to me that something was going fundamentally wrong which needed to be tackled. As founder and chief executive, I concluded that in order to improve productivity and profitability I needed to do more to engage and develop my people and therefore decided to invest in the web-enabled talent management tool, Talent Toolbox, from people transformation experts Learnpurple. By being able to harness all of my important people data and open up two way communications, I found it was possible to empower my workforce to drive their own progression.

The talent management tool was designed to transform our annual appraisal, a process which was in place but very inconsistent, and generate very robust information. The existing appraisal process consisted of some managers having meetings and some not conducting any at all. From those appraisals which had been completed, often there was no formal collation of the data and therefore these important checkpoints were sometimes portrayed as not meaning much at all, from which nothing could be learnt or changed. By introducing Talent Toolbox, I was able to create a consistent system which helped me assess engagement levels, find out what employees really thought and felt through their feedback as well as monitor and manage performance and development areas.

The results

After completing the appraisals we found that whilst the economic downturn was partly to blame for the reduction in profits, too much of it was down to lack of effectiveness in the business. No-one was taking ownership for the jobs that were going wrong or losing the business money and structurally there was no real need for them to. Every one in five jobs completed was deemed to be a 'bad job'. These jobs ended up costing us as much as we were making on the good ones and with managers not being measured against these poorly executed jobs they didn't worry themselves with taking ownership.


It was clear from the appraisals that many of the underlying problems boiled down to issues with communication. Feedback showed that the people delivering on the ground didn’t believe in the decisions being made by those at the top. This was either because they didn't understand them or because some of the decisions that made in practice were not the right ones. Whilst lots of thought was put into the decisions, and those carrying out the delivery were being considered, on reflection we realised it was essential to involve the people who would be doing the delivery in the decision making process.

The work we have done on talent management has also helped me refocus and identify structurally where business improvements could be made. Implementing regular formal appraisals and a system for staff to feedback on an ongoing basis has helped create an environment which enables more discussions. People have really opened up and appreciate the freedom and encouragement to talk about real issues, giving their honest views. And it's not just managers providing feedback on what they need from staff, but staff saying what they need from their managers. By creating a consistent two-way communication channel, my employees now feel that they have been a part of any decisions which have been made.

A big change for the managers through the new appraisal process was that they would now be measured against their results. However I knew from my experience in this industry that this change would still not be enough to make them want to take ownership of their jobs, and so I started to think more strategically about a restructure of the whole business so that they felt a personal interest in the business again.


Many CEOs, as I did, would like to get a better handle on who they employ; how competent they are; what potential they have; how likely they are to stay; how engaged they are; what their aspirations are; what they think and feel. Our talent management system helped us find the answers to these questions and once we had access to this wealth of business critical data, I was able to establish where business improvements could be made. Some of the key areas included communication, role and responsibility levels and so I tackled these issues head on and restructured the organisation.

To begin with, we gave a 20 per cent profit share is to each individual unit meaning that they are now responsible for running their area as if it were their own business. The team in head office and I no longer make the vast majority of decisions, instead we provide support and advice to the business units so they can make their own choices. We continue to use Talent Toolbox to help us identify overall training needs, individual training needs, and allow people to manage their own career progression meaning that the investment we make in development is very accurately targeted and therefore produces a great return for us.

This has been quite a change for myself, management, head office and all the staff at each unit. Managing the change process has been challenging, but by communicating everything to everyone throughout the company in an open and honest way has helped me smooth things over. People know that ultimately by engaging with this process it will be in their best interest so they have bought into it quickly.

I believe that everyone can run a business if they want to, but this requires risk which is something many people do not want or are not willing to take especially in the current economic climate. By restructuring as we have done, we are providing individuals with the partial experience of running their own business, in terms of the decision-making and profits, but also providing them with job security. Because of this I am confident we will attract a different kind of individual to our company, someone with entrepreneurial flair and an achievement focused motivation.

The impact

Whilst it is still early days, empowering the individual business units is already having a real impact on the business. And it's not just the profit or monetary reward that is driving employees. Real motivation comes from the fact that they are now in control of their own destiny and know that they can make a difference to the business.

We are also seeing a much higher level of morale now, which I can again track on an ongoing basis via our talent management tool. Despite the economic climate this is now higher than when times were good and I put this down to the improved communication and working structures. It comes back to our employees feeling and knowing that they have meaning and purpose at work.

In order for someone to be completely engaged at work, they need to feel valued and happy but also need to be contributing to their maximum ability. Again, with better communication channels in place, like regular reviews and helping people to feel empowered to make choices, there is a far greater sense of engagement.

The recession has been somewhat of a rallying point for Story Construction, the threat to the business has seen people bond and helped trigger changes in both the company and individuals; with individuals showing less complacency and more willingness to pull together to make a successful business.

I am honestly as excited now as I was when I first started out in the business 22 years ago and am optimistic about the future, with our profits forecasted to increase in the region of 70 per cent next year despite the downturn. I also believe there are fantastic opportunities out there, both in terms of buying well-priced land but also attracting top talent into the business. I'm sure that people looking for employment in our sector will be more likely to come to a business like ours who place its people at the top of the agenda. I feel we are ahead of the game now and envisage that our efforts over the past year will make us an 'employer of choice', something that's really going to help us when those green shoots of recovery really do start growing.

¹ (Blueprint for Construction Skills 2007-2011)

Click here to view a pdf of this article.

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Coming soon to Scotland...

Jo Harley comments on the launch of learnpurple Scotland...

I am a city (and very much a London) girl, however recently I have been introduced to the virtues of the countryside, and whist not totally converted I do like the idea of ha

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To tweet or not to tweet...

Jon Reed discusses the issue of how 'social' social media really is and its place in business.

Recently, I've been wrestling with the world of online social networking. Is it something that can help me, or that I can use to

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Ask the experts - first time manager dilemma

Industry experts tackle common management dilemmas. Taken from Edge magazine, February 2010.

You have promoted a member of your department to head up her own team of four staff. You chose her because she's independent, organised and hardworking, traits which you thought would make a good manager. However, three months into the new role, she has come to you upset, saying she's not cut out to be a manager. You hadn't realised how much she was struggling and that she needed support. What do you do?

Jane Sunley, Managing Director of learnpurple and talent toolbox.

One of the most challenging transitions is from team member to manager. Just because someone is a good self-manager, doesn't mean they will automatically make a good leader.

Many organisations don't adequately prepare the people they promote. In recent years, business has become more complex and competitive. Combine this with depleted management layers due to the recession and the pressure to make fast decisions about internal promotions has increased. But, internal promotion is often the best option - as long as the candidate has been well prepared.

In this case, i'd look to the people involved with this new manager, including yourself. What could you do to develop her? Have you done all you could to help grow her confidence, to offer support and trust? Having made sure she has the tools to do the job, is her line manager prepared to let go and have belief in her? Is there role clarity, in particular when it comes to desired outcomes?

Meet with this new manager to reassure her that help is at hand. Make sure you clarify her remit in terms of the role, responsibilities and what a 'good job looks like'. Explore exactly why she is feeling so upset. Discuss the skills and attributes she needs to be able to fulfil her role and identify any skill gaps. See if there are any quick wins to help restore some of her confidence.

Assuming she wants to meet the challenge, draw up a development plan. This might include leadership basics such as coaching, teambuilding, communication and influencing skills, supported by some one to one coaching and mentoring.

Make sure you meet regularly to review progress and continue to support and put a talent management system in place to ensure that you can build great teams and the people to lead them.

To read this article in full click here.

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Coaching from the cricket field

Ben Buet, business development manager, learns how to get the most out of people at work using skills learnt on the cricket field.

I first went to Australia to play and coach cricket at the tender age of 19. At such a young age, this wa

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Warming hearts and hands through service

MJ Flanagan comments on recent examples of customer service as highlighted in the Evening Standard this week.

Two contrasting stories in the Evening Standard (22nd January) clearly illustrated the importance of the 'wow factor'

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Is 2010 the year of the small company? We think so!

Jane Sunley on the rise and rise of SMEs in the UK

The onset of a new decade made me think back over the last one. It was this time exactly ten years ago, some might say with my corporate career in its acendency, that, some might also

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Managing stress for success

Sally Brand, Business Development Manager discovers ways to manage stress for organisations and individuals.

Stress is a fact of life for many people in modern society. Research shows that levels of anxiety have risen in recent years an

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Be the best you can be - but above all be yourself

MJ Flanagan, Training Director brings the X factor to the finance industry.

This weekend I sat watching the X factor with a glass of wine. I wanted Olly to win although I knew Joe would. But it was Stacey who stole my heart. Here was th

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Keeping staff motivated through the highs and lows of hospitality

This article came from Hotel Business December 09 / January 10

Keeping staff motivated through the highs and lows of hospitality can be difficult. Jane Sunley, Managing Director of learnpurple, has some advice.

As 2009 draws to an end, many are sighing with relief. The Christmas period is often quite stressful anyway, and this year we had the added challenges that came with the dreaded 'R'. We have been very impressed with how so many organisations used this period to really up their game and did not cut back on engaging their people. Many realised that it's now more important than ever to really have motivated people to help deliver the best and really go into the New Year on the right footing.

This is our ten point plan to help you engage and motivate your staff:

1. Become a 'best place to work'

If your employees are proud to work for you, they will naturally be more motivated. People want to be associated with success, and will be motivated by it. Constantly promote how great your company is - both internally and externally - and shout about your successes. Make every single person you employ an ambassador for your organisation by giving them the key messages to pass on.

2. Communication

Find a way to make sure real two-way communication happens. It is important to share information about the organisation, as well as to consult and involve your employees in decision-making.

3. Career Path

Research has shown that although there are those who need a clear career path in order to feel inspired, there are many who are not motivated by feeling pressured to keep taking on more responsibility or changing what they do. Either way, job security enhances motivation. Encourage some calculated risk taking with internal promotion - people often grow into a role. If you are developing and coaching people on the way up, then the risk is far less. In any climate, seeing that there is the possibility to grow and develop within the company can be very motivating.

4. Vision and Values

Be clear about what these are, and make sure everyone in the organisation knows. This is not about a plaque on the wall - you have to live them. Take the time to find out what each employees' personal values/aspirations are, as in order to be motivated, these need to match and the employee needs to feel as though they are valued as a person.

5. Flexibility

Discover what your staff members want and do your best to give it to them. People will often trade excitement for flexibility or money for excitement - it's all about what their own motivators and drivers are - so find out what they want as individuals. Review employment practice with a view to work/life balance - you may need to train existing people to understand and support this.

6. Support

You can't have loyalty unless you give it. Take care of people in trouble - it's a strong message. This isn't about 'going soft' - it's a commercial business decision. Give the same level of commitment you expect to receive back.

7. Pay and Benefits

According to our research, this is number nine in the level of importance for engaging employees. So if you are getting it right with communication, leadership, development, career path and managing aspirations, then it becomes less emotive. Pay fairly, and then make your people forget about money. When it comes to benefits, find out what your people would want and what they consider a benefit, rather than what you would - think about how this can be cost effective for you.

8. Development

Make it accessible, make it appropriate, and make it timely. Be flexible and fit the business as well as the individual. Consider the use of personal coaching for executives/top team. Make sure agreed development happens within the agreed time-scales by ensuring there is accountability.

9. Appreciation

Feeling valued is very important for employees to be motivated - especially in situations where we are expecting them to go the extra mile; often by doing more work, with less help and the same money. Praise accomplishments and attempts: both large and small; in different ways - sometimes verbally, sometimes written; as soon as it's deserved; publicly and privately; always sincerely.

10. Leadership

Employees work for people, not companies. And they leave people too. Make sure leaders are skilled at all levels - the middle management layer is key. Engage the superstars through inspirational leadership. Make sure that the top team take time out to regularly think about the people - this is a broad issue, which needs input at board level. Put employee issues at the top of the agenda, and encourage creative thinking - think the unthinkable every day.

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