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Are you surrounding yourself with people with high standards and high expectations of you?
Are you surrounding yourself with people with high standards and high expectations of you?
October 21, 2016 7:00 AM CDT

Holding Yourself and Your Company to the Highest Standards

Contractor tip of the month


“How can I set my company apart from my competitors, and be successful, when they are providing similar services and working under the table for cash?” This is a question I get from a lot of contractors these days.

My answer? Leaders of successful companies surround themselves with people and companies that demand the highest industry standards from them. The companies that are working for and paying cash while avoiding taxes, worker’s compensation and other costs will always be playing in the little leagues, as high-standard customers will not use them. You should focus on better clients and avoid playing your competitors’ short-sighted business game.

When I sat down to start writing this month’s column, the song “Sweet Music Man” by Kenny Rogers came on the radio. The lyrics provided a perfect complement to what I intended to write about.

Inspired by Waylon Jennings and his wife, Kenny sings about the struggle to break away from the ones who keep you from rising to the top. He says in the song:

“I wouldn’t listen and I couldn’t see, and all I have left now are words you said to me. Sing a song sweet music man 'cause I won't be there to hold your hand like I used to, I'm through with you. You're a heck of a singer and powerful man but you surround yourself with people who demand so little of you.”
Most construction company owners feel like working for cash is the only way to survive in the early stages of building their companies. Then, as they become comfortable with the process, they continue playing the cash game for customers with low standards. Sadly, this comfort zone (weakness) comes from the top and filters down into all areas of the business. Later in the song, Kenny sings:
“Sing your song sweet music man, you travel the world with a six-piece band that does for you what you ask 'em to. And you try to stay young but the songs are sung to so many people, they've all begun to come back on you. Sing your song sad music man, makin' your living doing one-night stands, they're through with you. They don't need you, you're still a heck of a singer but a broken man. But you'll keep on lookin' for one last fan to sing to.”
Once the low standards become commonplace at your company, many good customers leave you for someone new. I suddenly realized that these words were pointing to a key operating principle for my business and my life:

Purposefully and proactively surround yourself with people who demand a lot from you.

When I started my masonry business 32 years ago, several friends and relatives started similar businesses as well. The ones who continued to work for cash are out of business or have hardly grown over the same period. If they had focused their energy on proper processes, instead of trying to save money by working for cash, we’d still be healthy competitors. Instead, those low standards kept them from growing, as their focus has always been on hiding wealth instead of creating it.

If we mapped out this key operating principle, the process would look something like this:

Working with companies (and people) with higher standards → higher expectations of you → you (consciously and unconsciously) are driven to produce better work → your skills grow; this new, higher quality of work just becomes the “new normal”; and your reputation grows in the marketplace → you get the nod on jobs over your competitors time and time again.

Funny enough, while I was writing this tip, an email came in, telling me that a big, fat check was being deposited from Turner Construction Co. I smiled to myself, not because of the money, but because I owe a lot of my success to Turner and companies like them.

Because Turner is known to have such high safety and quality standards (along with tight deadline requirements), many sub-contractors will avoid bidding work for them, as they don’t want to be held to the Turner standards. And just like my early peers, these same companies remain small forever, as their owners wait endlessly for a shortcut to the top.

In closing, I want you to ask yourself the following questions:
  1. Who are you surrounding yourself with? People with high standards and high expectations of you? If not, how can you proactively seek out these high-standard people and situations?

  2. Are there companies you are shying away from working with because they demand more? If you were to look at this from the long-term vantage point of an investor, how might some upfront costs pay big dividends in the future?

  3. How can you bring people with high standards onto your team? And how can you communicate to your team that you believe in them while having high expectations of them?
One more thing: get on YouTube and listen to the 4:20 version of the song “Sweet Music Man.” It may inspire you to adopt this principle into your business and your life.

About the Author

Damian Lang is a mason contractor in southeast Ohio and inventor of many labor saving masonry systems and products. Lang has served as the Marketing Committee Chairman for the Mason Contractors Association of America. He is also author of the book Rewarding and Challenging Employees for Profits in Masonry. To network with Damian on contractor tips or tips you have and would like published, contact him at or 740-749-3512.


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