Building A Strong Team With Scalable Processes And Direct Communication With Sean Hamilton | Ep. 270

Construction Genius | Sean Hamilton | Communication


Building a powerhouse team begins with clear communication, scalable processes, and the courage to address challenges head-on. Build not just a team, but a legacy of success through direct and effective leadership. In this episode, we have Sean Hamilton to discuss how to build a strong team, with scalable processes and direct communication. From dealing with responsibilities to overcoming communication hurdles, Sean shares how to handle team dynamics and foster a culture of accountability. He stresses the importance of good communication in the workplace, stating that it is crucial for success in any job. Sean also touches on Take Charge Learning, coaching strategies, and more. Tune in now!

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Building A Strong Team With Scalable Processes And Direct Communication With Sean Hamilton

All things being equal in terms of technical skills, we know that things like being able to communicate effectively, delegate set expectations, and hold people accountable. Those are the things that set apart one construction company from another, and that is why soft skills and the development of those skills particularly in the trades is so essential. My guest is Sean Hamilton. He is both the Founder and President of First District Mechanical group, which is a Vancouver area commercial and industrial HVAC plumbing and electrical company. He has also co-founded Take Charge Learning, which is deeply committed to enhancing business practices and empowering others through soft skill training.

In our conversation, we talk about the specific soft skills that people in construction need in order to excel. We dive into why people have a challenge having difficult conversations, how to set expectations clearly, how to develop and execute processes, and how to communicate effectively. I know you’re going to enjoy my conversation with Sean. There are tons of great takeaways there. I appreciate you reading this show.

Sean, welcome to the show.

Thank you very much for having me.

You did something that many people may think is completely crazy. You started a mechanical contracting company during COVID. What got into you that you wanted to start a company during the pandemic?

Good question, and I probably didn’t think about it at the time. It just seemed like the right time in general. I started a mechanical company, First District Mechanical in 2020. At the time, I really wanted to put my own flavor on something that I have found over the last 10, 15 years in the industry. I’ve learned from amazing people along the way. It got to a point where I was ready, at least I thought I was, to go and start something. It just happened to be during COVID.

At the time, the stars aligned to make it be the right time for me. I started in 2020, there were a couple of us that started it, and then morphed really quickly from two people that really started it to having two or three others. The next thing you know, we sit today and there are just under 25 of us. We do plumbing. We do HVAC for the Vancouver, British Columbia Canada market. It’s been absolutely fantastic, eye-opening. There have been all the hurdles that you can expect.

Do you have business partners or did you start it yourself, and then bring people on board? How did that work?

I have an amazing business partner. When we both started, we both had different visions in terms of long-term, so it made a lot of sense at the time was that I would take it and go forward with that. The person I was with would embark on their own journeys and stuff. That was at the very beginning, and about six months later in, it was just myself. To this day, it is still just myself as the Owner and President. However, I think there are clichés around it all day long, but it is this team, and that’s what it was always going to be about. It was going to be about building a team to make this thing scalable and fun along the way, and that’s what we’re doing.

You said scalable and fun. One of my clients says construction sucks but it’s fun. How do you emphasize the scalability and the fun part together because a lot of times scale equals pain?

Correct. I think it does. When you think scale after an organization who has been well-established for a long time, it is painful at that point, but I had the advantage of starting just recently, and so we’ve got to think processes early on. We’ve got to think expectations early on. We’ve got to think communication early on. By doing that, it got set the tone that people came in, they knew what was expected of them. They knew where we were going. They saw the vision. It was communicated well, and so then once all that happens, it makes your job a lot easier when you know all that stuff. Then you can start to do what’s fun, and that’s seeing everybody on a regular basis building connections. I think it’s a struggle for those that have started something, are well-established, and now they’re trying to create the change and the momentum in a way that’s fun and putting processes in place, but as long as they’re communicating well to their team, they’re going to get there as well.

Let’s talk about processes a little bit. Tell me what you mean by a process and what makes the difference between a good process and a bad one, or it could be a process as well?

That’s true. I think just in terms of a process is most people want to do what’s right, and they want to do what’s best for the organization and the team around them. When they don’t know what’s expected of them because processes are outlined, they’re going to make decisions themselves that they think makes sense. Sometimes those are good. Sometimes those are bad. When you have clear processes, step by step of what is expected of someone or the process itself, it allows people to not use their cognitive energy on the process and knowing what they need to do step by step. It allows them to think outside the box and provide value-add, provide improved soft skills, relationships, communication, because they don’t have to worry about the day-to-day what’s expected of me because there’s a process for that. There’s a workflow, “They’ve guided me through this. I’m going to use my energy on other things that I think matter more.”

The whole idea of putting processes together, is that something that comes naturally to you?

No, definitely not. It’s a struggle. Again, I’ve surrounded myself with amazing people, and they thrive on process. I think I learn a lot of things the hard way. When you don’t have processes in place, it can foster resentment. It can hurt cultures. It can leave a lot of people not knowing what to do, and maybe they want to leave because they want to know the process. If you put an amazing team around who really thrives on process and you start to realize the importance around it, it took me a while to learn that but again, that’s what we did with amazing people here, and people seem to be thriving.

Briefly, what was your background prior to starting the company?

I was in the trade myself. It’s not been fully two decades, but coming up to that is I started as an apprentice in refrigeration. I did the installation side, and then I went over to the service side with an amazing organization that I’m grateful for every day. That’s who I am. The owner there was tremendous. From there, I wore the service manager hat, their operations manager, director of customer experience. That was by far the funnest role I ever had for about five, six years there. Then I left that industry and I went into fire prevention for a year at an organization. That’s where I met my business partner for First District. That was again a tremendous, another great leader in our industry. Today, I’ve got First District Mechanical as an organization with an amazing team and then Take Charge Learning as well with an amazing cofounder with me and Laura.

Have you always wanted to be a business owner?

No, I haven’t. I don’t think I ever knew what I wanted to do. High school was always hard for me. All schooling was very hard for me. I was more just wanted to hang out with people, play sports, that was my life. I didn’t really know. Then HVAC fell out of nowhere because I had friends that did it and talked so highly about it. One thing I do know is that whatever I was going to do, it was going to involve people because I had an upbringing with a mom who that’s what everything was always about. It was that. I think that with a dad who owned his own business, and to a mom who taught me the skills that she did around the soft skills and communication, relationships, here we are today, and I can’t get enough of it.

What was the number one barrier that was getting in your way to starting a business prior to you doing it like in your head or just in the circumstances? Then how did you overcome that barrier?

This is going to probably sound bad, but I didn’t really look at the barriers. I don’t think often I look at the barriers. That’s one of our core values here is everything’s possible. I think that’s always just been in my nature. Again, when I wanted to put my own flavor on something, it just seemed that was the next progression to do that. I don’t think there was ever a time where I’m like, “I need to be a business owner. I want to be one.” It just came organically.

How do you balance that core value of everything’s possible with the need to manage risk effectively?

It’s definitely tough at times. Sometimes, I’ll say, “Let’s go for it.” The decision where we look as a group is a way to risk and go, “We’re okay to take that.” I think for the 24-ish people that are here now in this one organization, that’s one of the fun things that they have about working here is they know that they have an owner who is happy to take on risk, maybe adds more people at times where we aren’t quite there but know that is going to support the growth and support people in taking the next steps in their progression. I truly believe people stay places for many reasons, but opportunity becomes a big one. Sometimes, growth and opportunity, you have to do it a bit earlier, and that’s the risk that we take.

In terms of the way you’ve structured your company, I’m curious because I work with a lot of mechanical contractors, and one thing I love about mechanical from other construction companies is the fact that you guys can generate a lot of service business. What is your philosophy and outlook on the way that you’re building the company in terms of balancing new construction with service and special projects?

When we first started, the overall focus was going to be the preventative maintenance space. Maybe that’s one of the things about starting during COVID is that you want to have something knowing that you don’t know what’s going to happen with the market. You don’t know if there’s going to be a recession. You don’t know, but you look at where’s going to be the life blood of the organization. What’s going to keep the lights on? What’s going to keep the people paid? That is the preventative maintenance side of things. That was the overall first focus, and from that is the spin-off work on emergency service work, quoted repairs and unquoted repairs. Then from that is the evolution to go into small projects, and then from small projects getting into the construction side of things.

Having started the business in COVID, everyone’s so thankful to get it behind us and get back to relatively normal life, but what’s one thing that you took from how you had to operate your business in COVID that you’re going to sustain now that we’re back to a degree of normalcy?

I don’t know if anything. I think that during COVID, it required a lot more communication. There was a lot more because again, back into thinking about relationships, there was a lot more dialogue because in the world, there was a lot of uncertainty. People look to different people for guidance of what we’re going to do, and so you have to stand steady and not be different during COVID than you are outside of COVID. Being true to who you’re going to be, staying that, communicating to people, supporting them no matter what they’re going through and what people are going through. Even customers, there was a lot of things that happened where it was like remote. Being able to adapt to more remote meetings and maybe remote site visits and stuff, I think for anything, it’s just becoming nimbler with people in general that they have different feelings on what it means now for their where way of life.

How many leaders do you have in your organization?

The cheesy answer is everybody.

Let me ask in a different way. How many people do you have in your organization that have other people directly reporting to them?

Eight people.

How do you avoid micromanaging them? What do you focus on to avoid micromanaging?

It comes back down to processes, KPIs, I keep saying it, building relationships where you’re there as that servant leader, and you know what they need because there are parameters around their role, their job, responsibilities and objectives. You are checking in frequently to ensure that they have what they need to stay on target. Then as well as I think that this is a tremendous one is making sure that when things don’t go right, because they won’t, is that, “What was your thought process? What brought you to this decision that maybe wasn’t the right one?”

I learned this one from the past owner of an organization that I was with, and it was that if you had thought about the reason of why you did what you did, and there was logic behind it, then we’re good with it. I feel the exact same way. I don’t think it becomes micromanaging, it becomes you have to manage people. They’re looking for that leader to support you, being willing to give them some grace in times where they might make the wrong decision, and you’re not right there on top of them.

Construction Genius | Sean Hamilton | Communication
Communication: You have to manage people. They’re looking for that leader to support them, but be willing to give them some grace when they make wrong decisions and you are not there.


How do you avoid reverse delegation, when you give someone something to do within their realm of responsibility, but for whatever reason they don’t want to take it on and they try and ping-pong it back to you?

I don’t know if I’ve had a lot of that. Early on, you have to set expectations. Those are the job responsibilities. If it is their responsibility to perform that task, and they can’t do it, then the question would be, “What is taking up your time?” Maybe, sometimes I said opportunities earlier, they start to take on different things themselves that we didn’t even notice that they were doing, and it’s more passionate for them to do those things. Then we need to have a dialogue. Is there an opportunity for a new role where we need to fill something else out? Because what we do know is that task that you used to perform that is delegated to you, that still needs to get done, and so we have to find a way to get it done. Again, back to what’s the dialogue around, why are you redelegating it?

You’re building this business, and then you have another business that you’ve launched called Take Charge Learning. On the one hand, you’ve got this very much tactile, physical business where you’re helping people with their HVAC and mechanical needs. You’ve got this other business. Tell us a little bit more about Take Charge Learning and the genesis of that and where that’s going.

Take Charge Learning started probably in the first early discussions about eight years ago. Actually no, it’s going to go even way further than that. The very first time, there was a gentleman named Jim Baston. He had an organization. He was delivering proactive service workshops, and I was lucky enough to be part of an organization that brought him in, and I saw him speak and it changed me as an apprentice. I just said, “He is speaking directly to me to the kind of person I want to be, and it was soft skills and the impact that a technician can have to an organization and the customer.” That stuck with me for a long time. I reached out to him and he said, “One day, whenever you decide to not do what you’re doing, you let me know because you hit something with me that was super important.”

Fast forward, I met someone named Laura. Laura is now my business partner at Take Charge Learning. She is in Learning and Development. We did a course together just randomly, a workshop, and we met each other. We sat at the same table, and we started to realize we had a lot in common and what we cared about. Further from that was we just talked over the years and we stayed connected. Then Jim reached out to me about a few years ago and said he was thinking about winding down, did I have any interest? My wheels were going, but First District had just started. I just said, “No, it’s not the time.”

He came back again, and I just said to him, “I would need a business partner to do this, someone who knows it.” The light bulb went on. It was Laura, Jim, and myself. The next thing I know, Laura and I have started an organization where she is the learning development side of it, so she gets to be with people on a regular basis. She also handles our marketing side, but she comes from owning her own learning and development company. I come from the mechanical side, so what we decided was, “Let’s marry the two,” where I could bring the knowledge of traits. She could bring the knowledge of learning and development and managerial training and developing people, bring them together. We started a company called Take Charge Learning. It’s primarily trades-focused. However, we dip into tech environment as well and others, but it is primarily around trade.

What is the number one soft skill that you think is necessary for someone in a trade role to excel at?

Probably the overarching is communication. It probably always comes back to that. There is such a thing as too much communication, but I don’t think anyone ever hits too much communication. I keep coming back to the same thing. If you’ve set up proper expectations at the beginning, that’s communication. If you have sent an email that is very thorough and it talks and explains everything, that is communication. If you have walked into a building for the very first time and your arms are crossed, that’s a form of communication. If you’re very happy when you come into a building and you’re looking at someone or you’re going to have a hard difficult conversation with someone but you hit it head on and you address it immediately with compassion and care, that’s communication. I believe that it is overarching in everything now. I know it’s a very high level one, so I might be taking the easy road out on answering with that.

Let’s talk about communication for a little bit. What is the biggest challenge someone has with communicating effectively?

People don’t always know what clear communication looks like. I think they’ve been trained by different people that it means different things. I think that it is so large that you could do a few things really well, but you might not do things great. In an organization, where you have a plan in place to develop people, you understand what their strengths are, and also what their weaknesses are. I think a lot of people struggle on, “Let’s work on your weaknesses,” but that’s not who makes them who they are.

What makes them who they are is the strengths. Being able to have an environment where people come to a business, you have regular communication with everyone that’s in there, whether that’s annual reviews, semiannual, quarterly conversations, monthly conversations, whatever it is, constant communication with people develop on what makes them who they are and developing them to be the best that they can be. Their weaknesses will over time get better and better as their strengths improve, but I just think it is meet with people on a regular basis. Let them know what they’re doing well. Let them know the areas that they can improve on, and listen to feedback on how can you, as their leader or organization, improve to make it better for them.

What makes people who they are is their strengths, not their weaknesses. Click To Tweet

One of the areas you guys focus on is one-on-one conversations. I think this is one of the areas that people struggle the most in, particularly when it comes to confronting someone one-on-one. Let’s say you’re a leader and you have someone reporting to you and they’re underperforming for whatever reason and you need to have a difficult conversation with them. What advice do you have for leaders in terms of structuring and preparing for a difficult conversation?

Hit it head on, don’t wait. I don’t mean do it on a Friday at 4:00, where they’re dwelling about it the whole weekend or anything like that. When you know about it, the best thing to do is let them know and help them on a path to make it right, explaining to them facts. Just saying, “I feel or I’ve heard,” or stuff like that. That’s not good enough, that’s not constructive. Let them know areas that this happened but I just believe that when you know about it, don’t sit on it because you might decide to not deal with it and then it festers and it gets worse to you don’t know where it’s going to go.

I would say on the flip side, make sure you take your emotion out of it. Don’t react now and go, “We need to have a talk right now.” Sleep on it. Judge it, is it Friday at 3:00? This can wait until Monday. Then on Monday, hit it head on, show them the facts, help them on a path, hear them out on their side always, and then away you go.

What about having a coaching conversation? I know one of the best things that strong leaders do is that they’re not just telling people what to do, but they’re coaching them through the why and the how. How can I shift my mindset from being a manager to more of a coach that inspires people to high performance?

I just listen. This is an area that I need to work on. I’m not there but I think often, we don’t hear the other side of it. We’ve made decisions in our heads already about where they need to be, what we need to do, how we’re going to coach them, but not every single person learns and hears and has coached the same way. As a strong leader, you have to understand that to get from A to B on their journey, their way is a different way for every person. As a leader, you have to be able to adapt and hear what’s going to help them get to A to B. Sometimes, that road is longer for others. Sometimes, it’s quicker for others and sometimes it’s hard, but I think the biggest one is listening. This is something that I hope I always work on, but listening to people, understanding them, and then supporting.

Why do you think it’s hard for people to fire people who are not a fit for their business anymore? Why does it take so long to do that?

If it’s technicians, it’s probably because of the labor shortage that we have. I think just in general, when you have people that you are looking that might not be the right fit for your organization, “Could we push them into a different area where they’re not around other people? They’re really good. They’re “rock star,” but we don’t want them around our team. We don’t want them around our customers and stuff, and so we find and we make up excuses when really it’s that we’re not willing to have the hard conversation. We see it. They see it. What we need to understand as leaders is we owe it to our employees, the ones that are not the right fit. Maybe there’s a different spot on them. Jim Collins in Good to Great always talks about a different seat on the bus. Is there a better spot for them? That’s to understand their strengths, understand their journey. What do they want out of it? If they’re just not the right fit, then you need to have that conversation early on so they can either decide, “Is this the wrong fit, or no? I need help here. I need guidance here.” Then as a leader, we need to step up.

If your employee is just not the right fit, then you need to have that hard conversation early on. Click To Tweet

Why is it that people are reluctant to have difficult conversations do you think?

They’re hard. It’s just plain and simple, they’re hard to have. It is a lot easier to avoid that conversation and have in your head going, “I think it’ll go away. They probably know about it or whatever it might be.” It is a difficult thing. I also think there’s not enough training leaders today on how to have them and what’s the best approach. I look at the education that we have out there in high school and what we learn, it’s very academic. When we get into trade school, it’s very technical, which we have. We get in the field and we’re learning in the field. What we need to do is look at the soft skill side and go, “Are we developing managers and leaders and office staff and technicians and fields and so on? Are we developing that soft side skill for them with them?”

Let me run something by you here and get your feedback on it. I was working with one of my clients who runs a construction company. He struggles with having difficult conversations. I’m giving this little assessment to take on the way that he perceives himself. One of the big things for him is, “I want people to like me.” It’s perfectly normal for most people wanting other people to like them. I asked him, “How can you reframe that perception?” Because of him wanting people to like him, he doesn’t have difficult conversations. “How can you reframe that perception in terms of the business?”

He came up with something really interesting. He said, “I am responsible for the success of the company. For me to prioritize my relationships over the success of the company, that is irresponsible.” I found that pretty powerful because he was taking accountability for that. In your experience, how useful is that dropping the mask with yourself and understanding why you’re having a particular issue or a challenge in one area, and then thinking of a new way of looking at it in order to overcome that particular issue?

I think at the end of the day, do you want people to love you and leave, or love you and stay? People can like you or love you as the person that you are, but not want to be in the organization that you have because they don’t see opportunities for themselves, growth opportunities. They don’t see structure. They don’t see many different things. What you want to be is you want to be that leader that they love or respect, and they want to stay there because that leader puts them first, has created a path for them, has provided opportunities.

I get back to clear expectations. There’s a gentleman out there who has always talked about clear expectations. I believe that’s right. If you create clear expectations for someone and let them go and find their way within that, they will really respect the leader that they have because they have outlined what is expected and it never comes back to being like, “Why didn’t you do that?” They go, “I like you as a leader but you never told me that, and now you’re upset because I didn’t do that.” Clearly explain what is expected of them. Go be a great leader for them, and they are going to want to stay.

Construction Genius | Sean Hamilton | Communication
Communication: If you create clear expectations for someone and let them go and find their way within that, they will really respect the leader.


There are two coaches and they could handle things the exact same way. One coach says to the player, “Get off the field, that was not good,” and the player goes to the sidelines and goes, “I hate that coach.” The second coach could say the exact same thing in the exact same way, and they go off feeling, “I love that coach.” The difference is one of those coaches they love and respect because they’re developing them. They have totally set them on a path to where they’re going to go. They support them. They care about them. The other one is very hard on them, hasn’t set that path forward for them. It’s very important that at the beginning, what are the expectations of the people in the roles they have, and what do they need to do to get to the next step?

Have you ever been in a situation where you were at one point a peer with someone and then either by starting your own business or getting promoted, you became their boss?

Yeah, and it was tough. I was too young to know how to handle it properly.

How did you handle it at that point?

I probably didn’t. If I could go back, I would do it all again, but it was someone who I still am very much in touch with and is a friend, but we were much closer before. When it happened, instead of sitting down and having a dialogue around what that meant, we didn’t. What I do tell people now is the relationship, if you are a friend, a peer, and now you become the leader, that relationship is different. You should right then and there discuss what it means instead of avoiding that conversation like I did. Because if you set the tone right, then everyone knows and you can move on. It’s a regret I have but something that, as I said earlier, I tend to learn the hard way.

With that in mind, when someone comes into a new role, I think what happens a lot of times is you fill the role, you wipe your brow, you say, “That’s done,” and then you move on with whatever else you’re doing. What are some key focus areas in terms of onboarding someone whether you’re hiring them from the outside or promoting them into a new role in order for them to be successful in the first 90 days in the new position?

The first thing you just said was bang on is you ask the team first. Anytime that there is a new role opportunity, you posted internally, you let everyone inside know about it before it goes exterior so they have an opportunity of voice. You might not know that the new role you have is Jane’s or Joe’s or Mary’s dream job, and you had no clue. By doing that, they get to say, “I actually think I’d be really good for that,” and you find those diamonds there. If it is someone internally or external, the next thing is that they’ve seen the job description. They know what’s expected of them in that, and they’re not making it up on the fly. You’re not then going, “Why didn’t you do this? Why didn’t you do that? It’s clear. This is what is expected of you to do in this position in the timeframe. These are the KPIS’s around it. Can you be held accountable for this? Yes or no?” Then you get into the onboarding of it, and that process has to take time.

Too often, we just say, “Here’s your one week or here are your couple days. Here’s your swag bag. You must love us. Good luck.” No. Swag is always a nice thing, but that’s not onboarding. Onboarding is did you clear a nice path for them where they’re not trying to figure things out themselves? I talk about it as being a runway. Did you lay the runway? Did you put the lights down the strip? Is it very easy for them to find their way? Software obviously plays a big part in trades. With software now, “Did they get the proper training for the software in a day-to-day experience so they know what it’s like to live a day in the life of?”

Once they go through it, then you need to keep checking up on them. How are they doing? Do they have any questions? Are they coming up with obstacles? It’s like a three-month journey in getting someone on board. Some would probably argue that’s not even enough for that. It might be one year, or it’s a never-ending onboarding. I would say they need to know what’s expected. You need to ask the team first, that will help the culture of an organization. Then you can go exterior long onboarding, they know what’s expected of them and weigh it off.

Tell us a little bit more about the Take Charge Learning and how people can learn about what you guys do.

There are the easy ways around going to the website and checking us out there. For the most part, we tend to work with associations. We tend to work with contractors themselves. We can do things from, and it’s probably one we do the most, is proactive service workshop. That one itself is around the technician in the field and how to make them the trusted advisor for the customer. We also do communication, leadership, managerial training, supervisor training, so how do you be the leader that can help other people? We do emails. People who are struggling with email communication, we’ll do that. We do first impressions. There are lots of different things out there that we do. At the end of the day, it is all around the soft skills side of things. It tends to be trades, as I said, is the focus.

What’s the website where people can get in touch with you and learn more about it?


You’re up there in Vancouver, British Columbia, right?

That’s correct.

I know a lot of folks in the States like to come up and visit there. What is the one restaurant we should hit if we come to Vancouver, British Columbia? I know it’s a tough question.

It is a tough one. Black + Blue, there is Zefferellis both on the same strip on Robson in Vancouver, great place. Once you start to get into the suburbs, I think one of the amazing things here is how multicultural we are, and so you pretty much pick what type of food you want and you’re going to find an amazing place for that. It could be from Japanese food one night, and then you’re having Indian food another night, and then you’re having American food another night. You’re having Italian. It’s just been pretty amazing on how multicultural it is here. To pick one or two is pretty hard.

We’ll make a note of that one, Black + Blue, that sounds good. Sean, I really appreciate you joining me here.

Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Thank you for reading my interview with Sean. Feel free to check out his company, Take Charge Learning, also the link to the restaurant, Black + Blue, there in Vancouver. Make sure that you get that as well.


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