Veteran pool professionals talk leadership and accountability
Business leadership is a vast subject, one on which countless books, seminars, training videos, corporate retreats and white papers have been based. But what does leadership look like in the pool industry?
To find out, we spoke with several industry leaders with many years of experience leading companies of varying sizes.
Humility and confidence
David Isaacs, owner of Isaacs Pools & Spas in Johnson City, Tennessee, and a 30-year veteran of the pool industry, is disillusioned by all the leadership books and conferences.
“Leadership is about showing up, doing the work, not being a know-it-all and having enough self-awareness to know what is and what is not working for your organization,” Isaacs says. Good leaders walk a fine line between humility and confidence and are also open to new ideas and opportunities while standing firm on fundamental principles, he adds.
Chris Curcio, president of Litehouse Products in Strongsville, Ohio, and former chairman of the board for the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance, says a good leader must be stable but willing to take calculated risks. They’ll rely on the strengths of each staff member but promote a team environment by encouraging members to support one another.
“A good leader must understand his or her own weaknesses and strengths and be willing to admit those and seek help and advice as needed,” he adds.
For Sam Stroud, COO and co-owner of Spartan Pool & Patio in Norman, Oklahoma, the first word that comes to mind is “equip.”
“Leaders should be really focused on equipping their team to reach their full potential, not just as an organization or department but more on an individual level,” he says. But achieving this requires taking time to get to know the team members individually, he says.
After nearly 50 years of experience in the pool business, Alan Smith believes leadership can take many forms but always comes down to character. It’s something he knows well after owning Alan Smith Pools in Orange County, California, since 1981.
Whether you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a stock guy in a warehouse, we’re all capable of being leaders if we decide we want to live our lives that way.”
Alan Smith, Alan Smith Pools
“Whether you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or a stock guy in a warehouse, we’re all capable of being leaders if we decide we want to live our lives that way,” Smith says.
Shaping company culture through accountability
A big part of leading any business also involves holding people accountable, says Kyle Chaikin, president of Chaikin Ultimate Group in Deer Park, New York. After almost 40 years in the industry, Chaikin knows pool companies not only provide a luxury backyard feature but are also responsible for the health and safety of their clients. His company builds high-end, often complex, residential and commercial pools, so his clients have high expectations for top-quality work.
“Accountability becomes a complex process, from design to build to weekly maintenance,” he says. “Accountability means each member of the team understands what’s expected of them, how their work fits in with the overall picture and why their work is so important to our overall success.”
Understanding roles also means employees feel the freedom to give feedback about the company’s processes, keeping the entire team accountable for quality service. “We train our staff to point out obvious design flaws or suggest better ways to tackle issues while they’re on the job site, and this has been an integral part of our company’s success,” Chaikin says.
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Curcio of Litehouse Products also believes accountability is a key part of a company’s culture.
“The better a leader understands that mistakes will occur and that each team member is expected to be accountable for the solution, the easier it is for people to admit they made an error,” he says. “When someone brings up a problem or a mistake, the first question I ask is, ‘What do you think is the right solution?’ ”
Leading outside of your comfort zone
For many leaders, holding an employee accountable can be awkward or uncomfortable. This has been Stroud’s experience during the 15 years he and his brother have had their company.
“My nature is to be nonconfrontational and a pleaser,” he says. “When I have been successful [at holding people accountable], it comes from an awareness that the business is bigger than me. There are a lot of people who depend on me to not be cowardly and to do what needs to be done.”
Smith of Alan Smith Pools holds employees accountable through performance reviews, audits and surprise visits to job sites. “You can only expect what you inspect,” he says. “If you’re not inspecting and checking up, you’re going to have problems because people are not being held accountable.”
But knowing employees need to be held accountable and deciding how to make them accountable are two different things. On one surprise visit, Smith caught one of his best people — an excellent worker and the father of six children — drinking a beer on the job site, a firing offense.
“What do I do?” Smith asked himself at the time. “If I don’t enforce the rules, then we may as well not have them.”
After taking a day to mull over the problem, Smith decided not to fire the employee for several reasons: the job was completed, the client (who felt terrible about the incident) had offered the beer, the employee had driven to the job in his car and not in a company vehicle and he was not a chronic rule breaker.
“It was very uncomfortable,” Smith says. “He was a great guy, one of my very best. He just made a really bad choice that one time, so I gave him some leeway.”
Holding Yourself Accountable
How do good leaders hold themselves accountable?
“If I make a mistake, I own it, and I either fix it or get help doing so,” Curcio says. “Just like I would expect for anyone else.”
“I am consistently my own toughest critic,” Chaikin says. “I try to learn from mistakes and make sure we turn problems into opportunities for doing a better job next time.”
For all the talk that surrounds the subject of leadership, Isaacs of Isaacs Pools & Spas finds inspiration in the words of the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who said, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they say: ‘We did it ourselves.’ ”