Trusting in staff pays dividends

Selling their premises, eliminating support staff, and getting on-the-road technicians to behave like owners proved a winning formula for refrigeration and airconditioning company Thermo Tech. John Laurent discovers that trusting staff pays dividends and has benefits for all.


on-the-road technicians. However, difficult financial circumstances forced a change which set Smith and Wilgermein on the road to creating a powerful and effective company culture.

In 2004, Smith and Wilgermein sold the office/warehouse and eliminated the support jobs. Today all nine company personnel are technicians operating front home and working directly with customers. To make this work, they developed their company’s unique culture. “Our culture certainly helps our profitability,” says Smith. “One of the key factors in building the culture was to get the Technicians doing the work to think and behave like owners. This enabled us to greatly reduce our overheads by getting rid of the property and also not needing any support staff. However, a bigger benefit has been the stability and commitment of our field staff.” The overriding characteristic of the Thermo Tech culture is the ability of the technicians to make business decisions- and Wilgermein’s and Smith’s encouragement for them to do this. In order for this to happen the pair deploy two key strategies.

The first is a coaching style to leadership and the second is the quality of real time information available to the technicians in the field. “The more self-managing our staff are, the lower the costs.
In addition they get more satisfaction from their freedom and autonomy,” says Smith. The coaching style means putting greater responsibility on the technicians to make and act on the ir own decisions.

“There was some resistance to this at first,” says Smith. ” People asked me why did they have to do things for themselves? In order to encourage this, you have to be careful you don’t beat them up when they make a mistake. I find myself asking questions and making suggestions rather than telling people what to do. I encourage my people to let me know when something has gone wrong and we fix it and learn from it.”

In order to help front-line decision making, Smith and Wilgermein have implemented real-time monitoring, feedback and information systems which the technicians access via cell phones
in the field. “Their boundaries are clear. They arc able to cost jobs and provide quotes and negotiate in the field talking directly with customers. I only get involved in the big jobs,” says Smith.
“We do other things to build our culture as well. For example, we don’t have revenue targets for the technicians, but my expectations around some KPls like zero complaints and them generating 50 percent of their own work are clear.

We also train our staff and employ apprentices. We make sure we have our two-weekly meetings and it’s important to keep up the socialising with staff get-togethers.” Key to the success of the pair in building a high performance culture will have been the operating styles of the leaders. In my experience the typical leader of a high performing team will under play the impact of their own unique style of interacting with the team and, in fact, many will be unaware of how their intuitive approach to managing others has paid off.

On further questioning, Smith did give us some clues into his own beliefs and how these operate in his leadership style. “There is always a tension between people being free to decide and keeping them from going off course. My role is to keep them on track and focused on results. They decide the means. This needs careful communication with people. I always first check my own assumptions. I am a keen horse rider and riding has taught me that. Just like you can’t blame the horse, you can’t blame your staff when something goes wrong.”

Thermo Tech culture explained

chartWe used the Organisational Culture Inventory to help the team at Thermo Tech understand their culture. This questionnaire-rated as the most useful in the world in a major UK study-describes,
measures and benchmarks an organisation’s culture using a 12-style model of behaviour. These expectations of ‘how we do things’ are powerful guides for members’ actual approach to each other and the job.

The 12-styles clock diagram for ThermoTech demonstrates that the dominant ways of operating are the perfectionistic (work hard, avoid mistakes), achievement (set own goals, do things ,veil), self actualising (be open, enjoy … work) and humanistic / encouraging/affiliative (be involved in decisions affecting you, think for yourself, cooperate). The low passive-defensive, in particular, indicates that the team’s norms are to take initiative. This result shows that the Thermo Tech culture is of a higher quality than the Australian/ New Zealand average.

About the organisational culture inventory

The 12 styles described and measured by the Organisational Culture Inventory are derived from a model of human behaviour. The questionnaire focuses on expectations for behaviour \·within organisations rather than staff satisfaction on the basis that how people behave has an impact directly on performance as well as satisfaction. This questionnaire has been used by over 200,000 members of organisations in Australia and New Zealand alone and is applicable to large and small companies. The main purpose of doing this survey are:
The issues of ‘culture’ and its impact are on the table in a way everyone becomes aware of;
Through a gap analysis between the quality of the actual culture and the ideal culture (using the ‘preferred culture’ version of the questionnaire) a strong call for action can be obtained;
People know specifically what needs to change so a change strategy can be developed;
By doing a retest in a year or two, a goal for change is set and progress can be measured.

This questionnaire is the best available for making the ‘soft’ aspects of company life (how people behave) understandable through measurement. It represents part of a data-based approach to managing people.



Thermo Tech Culture