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Letters to a General Superintendent (Part 3)

What follows is the third letter in a series of letters supposedly written by an owner (Jack Owployer) in response to a general superintendent’s (Joe Gensup) request for something more than the typical job description. Though the company had provided a generic job description, what the superintendent needed and received was much more personal and heartfelt, when compared to the sterile notion of do’s and don’ts so commonly emphasized, throughout our industry.

Dear Joe:

Last month, I touched briefly on the importance of being proactive as opposed to reactive. I urged you not to tire as you hear me repeatedly refer to the importance of proactivity. You know full well, you can’t shut me up when it comes to this subject. So if this seems like old news by now, don’t be so sure you’ve heard everything there is to hear. You haven’t, and even if you had, it’s still worth hearing again and having the ongoing reminder in writing. Convinced? If not, bear with me, take my word for it, and read on.

Great management requires a proactive approach. You can’t afford to be reactive because, generally speaking, being reactive is too late. It’s too late to prevent problems and avoid the ramifications of having had them. To put it simply, you can’t (shouldn’t) wait until it rains to go umbrella shopping.

Once you’ve gotten yourself all wet, it’s no fun and you’re going to waste a lot of time getting yourself dried off and changing clothes and getting back to whatever it is that needed to be done in the first place. Moreover, you’re still going to need and have to spend the time and money to buy that umbrella. Why not be proactive and buy one beforehand simply because you know you’ll need it?

As you know, I have oftentimes referred to being proactive as fire prevention as opposed to firefighting, which is reactive. The stat I mentioned in my last letter, that firefighters only spend 3 percent of their time firefighting and the remaining 97 percent on readiness and fire prevention, is a compelling illustration. Just think how catastrophic the failure rate would be if they merely operated in a reactive manner.

Similarly, a reactive manager spends most of his time putting out fires. Consequently, the long-term result is chaos, confusion, unrelenting failure, damage and loss. A proactive manager anticipates and acts. Such activities are thought about and acted on in advance, before the point of failure. They anticipate, identify potential problems, and take action to prevent them before they occur. Sweet!

Consequently, the long-term result in this case is precisely opposite when compared to his reactive counterpart; his results are order, clarity, continual improvement and productivity. The proactive manager’s mind is free from the frustration, distraction and the victimization of being blindsided and forced repeatedly into reacting too late to avoid problems.

Instead, the proactive manager’s thinking is dominated with considering potential problems and preventing them as opposed to dealing with real problems and figuring out possible solutions. Proactive managers are able to spend most of their time preparing and positioning the organization to prevent and avoid trouble. The difference in a trouble free business environment and a business in trouble is simple: the abundance of opportunity and profit, or the lack thereof.

As you strive to focus on being proactive, keep your expectations realistic. You will have fires to put out—that’s just part and parcel of business. Don’t let yourself be discouraged when things go wrong. Consider failure and problems as opportunities for organizational and personal improvement. They are (should be) identifiers of organizational and personal weaknesses. Working on solving them and learning to prevent them will only make you and your organization stronger. So, look at them as a blessing in disguise.

Let me be perfectly clear: Avoid sulking and discouragement. It is completely counterproductive, a waste of time and a drag on productivity! Comfort yourself with this fact: It is normal to experience discouragement and feel completely overwhelmed at times. As a manager you will have to face and overcome it, time and time again.

I want to stay on topic so I won’t elaborate further on the very real threat that frustration, discouragement and pity parties pose, even with seasoned managers. I’ll save that for a future letter. Perhaps a good title for it might be “in search of perfection.” In the meanwhile, if you happen to find it, perfection, that is, let me know. I never have—and I’m not the least bit discouraged by it either.

So then, keep your chin up, put your fires out, anticipate and act. When a fire is raging, you have no option. Get out your fire extinguisher and get to work. The hours can be long and grueling. Let that be a reminder of how much better it would have been to have prevented it.

Note that I’m telling you to do two specific things that require a significantly different approach. First things first, put the fires out. When a fire is burning, it supersedes fire prevention. Put it out and use whatever remaining time you can carve out of your day on fire prevention, such as planning, careful reflection, considering and avoiding potential problems, all of which are necessary if you are going to prevent or minimize future issues.

When I say, put the fires out, I mean just that. Out! Doing so requires a penchant for thoroughness, identification of the cause, change and so on, to name a few necessities, without which they will continue to smolder and ultimately flare up again.

We’ll get into a “heated” one-sided discussion called “another letter” about this next time around. Will these letters ever end?

Until then …


Doug Bellamy is former president of Innovative Drywall Systems Inc. dba Alta Drywall, Escondido, Calif. He is known for his original thought, innovative approach and the personal development of unique processes, systems and procedures. He is available for consultation, business management seminars and training. Visit him on LinkedIn or contact him at

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