Working with your hands

Posted on 06/03/2012


It was June 17th and I went to the work site, also known as my home, and I told the lead builder:

‘I have good news and bad news’ I said

‘What is the bad news’ he said, being a good Irish man

‘I will be working here come Monday’ I said, with a wry smile

‘And the good news?’ he said laughing…

And it began, my 7 weeks as a builder. What a ride it was, and in my time slugging bags of dirt from my backyard to the skip, laying some brick in the garden and even nailing down the flooring — I might have learnt a thing or two.

In the early days, like any new job I was a bit naive, these guys had been at this for a couple months already and no amount of cheer leading and free beer was going to make this thing get built any faster. Neither were my ‘executive’ management techniques, HBR was a bit useless here. And so became yet another reminder that EQ goes a heck of a lot further than IQ.

The environment nor the type of work favored the smartest guy in the room. When you apply executive skills to a problem like this, you find yourself spinning your wheels. Sure, a little bit of project management clearly helps things run more smoothly and anticipating the delays and possible orders was critical in the last few weeks of finishing — but really, the most important part was having cash available to buy stuff. I call this forward ordering, having the materials ready so that the labour can keep going on the task at hand rather than having to shift from one job to the next and almost have to re-start. This brought back tons of memories from operations management course at school, efficiency here was more about finishing what you started; as these guys were pros if you could give them the tools and material to get the job done.

It was really quite humbling as you realized how little leverage you were in this new world. Any of the clever ideas, strategy planning or incentive structures had no real multiplicative impact on the outcome. In a big company, a change in direction or shift in focus could drive material shifts in the outcome; at least it was perceived too! A nice wake up call, that folks knew their trade, you were best to get out of the way and let them at it. A lesson in there for us in executive positions for sure.

This led me to think what does an executive do anyway? And each executive has a different style or approach to their leadership position. If business is about organizing thought, then an executive is trying to conduct that thought into a sequence or pattern to achieve their desired outcome — I call this process engineering, layered with a bit of inspiration and some blind confidence! It is a system though, and the more you understand that system the easier it is to work inside it; whether you study it or it comes naturally, the ones who do best figure out the system.

While being a builder was a lot of fun, it is probably not for me. I got an immense amount of satisfaction doing the work, got in much better shape and enjoyed helping to build my own home. In the end it likely was just not demanding enough on the intellect, and if I was to do that 40-50 hours a week it would leave no time for filling the rest of my time with interesting and engaging topics. That said, a craft of some kind might be a different story — stayed tuned, I am searching.

Your life is always about balance, so although not for me all the time, it was a life changing experience. It gave me highs and lows like anything else I have ever experienced. Life does that.

(A during and after photo)


Day 98 – Ground floor looking into garden


Day 150ish (move in day!) – Ground floor looking into garden


The basic layout of the project (a guide to anyone!):

Phase 1: Demolition and structural work
– Remove carpets/flooring, kitchen, bathroom
– Fireplace removals
– Remove upstairs wall and cabinets
– Roof fixing
– Dig out of floor
– Wall removal on ground floor
– Install beams for support for new structure

Phase 2: New structure and layouts

Ground floor
– Bathroom layout on ground floor
– Build new living room wall
– Kitchen layout for plumbing
– Front hall way clean-up
First floor
– Bathroom layout, including new walls
– Insulation on walls
– Boiler install
Whole house
– Level of flooring and insulation
– Radiators
– Electrical and lights
– Roof windows in kitchen area & long back door
– Windows and doors

Phase 3: Interior finish, start at top of house

First floor
– Flooring
– Bathroom install
Ground floor
– Flooring (& tiles in front hall)
– New fireplace frames install
– Kitchen install
– Bathroom install
Painting inside
Outside clean-up and painting

Posted in: Leadership, Life