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Leadership Advice from Top Contractors

Originally published
Originally published: 12/9/2020

Learn from your peers and those who have been in your shoes, and you will evolve as a leader.

Being a leader means many things to different people. What may be an effective leadership style for some may not work for others. The one thing that seems most certain about leadership is that truly great leaders are always evolving.

This industry is full of some truly great leaders. These contractors know the best way to lead their companies — their teams — is to learn from others, implement good leadership advice and evolve their leadership style.

We surveyed a handful of successful contractors and asked them three simple questions:

  1. What’s the best leadership advice you’ve ever received?
  2. How did you implement that advice into your own leadership?
  3. How have you evolved as a leader?

Instead of soliciting leadership advice, we asked these contractors to describe their leadership journey. In their responses — their stories — is some of the best leadership advice you can get … because it’s real. It’s what they’ve learned from others, about themselves and their leadership.

Use these stories to help you along on your own leadership journey — and feel free to reach out to me at to share your story.


Jaime DiDomenico

President, Cool Today

Sarasota, Fla.

Find someone who could teach you this business — and follow their instructions! Actually, to be a great leader, you have to become a really good follower of success. Those people who’ve blazed a trail of life experience may not have all the RIGHT answers for your business, but they definitely know the WRONG way and how to avoid the land mines of failure that exist. Listen to them, follow others who have knowledge, and you will save so much time, effort and money.

I not only have people I could call for advice and visit their operations, I also have a network of peers through Nexstar Network who are finding a way to grow and prosper.

Leaders are always growing in knowledge and leadership skills. This takes constant learning, which helps their company grow with them. I’m learning as much as I can and staying humble in my leadership track.

I have learned to listen better, more effectively. I have learned to let situations play out before jumping in, and to plan a year out to be successful in a larger company. I have also evolved in respect to investments in training and educating the team. It’s a necessary investment in them and your company.


Theo Etzel

Chairman of the Board, Conditioned Air

Naples, Fla.

If you’re not willing to put others first, above yourself and money, then you don’t deserve to be called a leader. Serving others is the ultimate call for leaders. This drive also allows you to surround yourself with smarter people than you and feel confident you can help equip them to be even better at their career.

Just saying that others matter more and not showing it, doesn’t cut it. I had to demonstrate it every day, even when that meant tough decisions and had costs associated with them. To gain trust from the team I had to say what I meant and then act on it. Leadership hypocrisy is a destroyer of organizations.

I’ve learned to balance my compassion and confidence in the conviction of what our correct path is and why it is important to stay the course. I’m more selective in who is allowed onto the team and quicker to release someone who is pulling against the mission. I’ve also grown in the realization that the company culture can and should be by design and not by default.

Culture is the backbone of success or failure. I wrote my thoughts on leadership down in a book titled “Invest Your Heartbeats Wisely.”


Winston Hancock

President, Gilman Heating and Cooling

Ashland, Va.

The key to success is to double your failure rate. You must be willing to do what others won’t to achieve what others don’t. Examples of both of these is to keep fishing.

For me, it’s the little things … not the big silver bullet that people think. If you can find what does not work, then you have found a starting point of what will work. I was willing to change every day and I’m still changing today.

I’ve learned I was only as good as my team. For example, a dog will bark when they are happy or mad. If you recognize and approach both you usually make a friend, and it takes a lot of friends to have a quality of life and success.

I don’t consider myself as a leader, but I do consider all who I associate with to be leaders. One leader can’t inspire all, but all can inspire one. When you reach that point, leadership works and there is not much the team can’t achieve. Everybody I work with is a leader in their own special way.


Darryl Robinson

Owner, Robinson Air

Lawton, Okla.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. This might seem like a no brainer, but our pride sometimes gets the best of us and we feel we should always have the answers. I struggled with this early in my career, but eventually realized there are a lot of people who are eager to help.

This really became evident once I joined ACCA and Service Nation Alliance, where I met other leaders who faced the same issues I had been struggling with and were happy to share how they overcame them.

I am fortunate to be in an industry where we make our living by serving others. This includes customers and colleagues. I’ve tried to create a culture where no one is afraid to ask a dumb question or have a bad idea. I’ve also tried to be sensitive to those who may be struggling and ask if there is anything I can do to help, and not wait for them to ask for it.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned has been to not be so hard on myself. This allows me to be more understanding of others as well. The sin is not to make a mistake, the sin is to repeat it. I am much more accepting of mistakes than I have ever been, both of myself and of my coworkers. Failure is never easy, but it is necessary for success.


Greg Mericle

President, Hurlburt Heating & Plumbing

Durand, Wisc.

Be honest. Set honest expectations of what your team can expect from you and what you expect from them. From there, you can hold each other accountable and see that those expectation are met.

Having been an employee in the past, the respect I had (or didn’t have) for my leaders was generally derived from their follow through. If you say you’re going to do something, you had better do it. Your team will not go into battle for a leader they don’t trust and respect.

Before I make a promise or a statement to our team I try to always consider its feasibility … the last person I want to be is the guy who always aims high and misses low. When I do miss, I’m the first one to call it out. This level of personal accountability and honesty from a leader trickles down to your team, who will respect you for it and hopefully take on these attributes as well.

The younger me was a fire and brimstone guy, patience and understanding were not part of my being. As I look back, the most embarrassing and costly moments in my life have been instances where I went off on someone or acted before I had taken the time to gather all details of the situation and consider potential outcomes. Time and personal growth have taught me to slow down situations and view them from the widest perspective possible to consider the points and possibilities of all involved.

Life, and being a good leader, are much like playing chess: the better you see the board, the more successful you will be.


Marty Rosica

Owner, Hawks & Company

Deptford, N.J.

I have been a part of many leadership sessions with our peer group over the years. Understanding and implementing servant leadership was a turning point for me.

Servant leadership is a bottom-up mindset, with me being on the bottom and serving it up to all of our employees. Humility and vulnerability are key words in our organization that we talk about and hire to.

I have become a better delegator. This has enabled our team to get better by making more decisions, driving ideas and blazing their own trail in the organization.


Jeff Madison

General Manager, Krinkie’s Heating, Air Conditioning and Plumbing

St. Paul, Minn.

When I started working for Bruce Krinkie, he told me “Don’t ever ask someone to do that you won’t do yourself.” Within my first week of working for Bruce, I witnessed this as I watched Bruce army crawl around in a hot attic for four hours. We had younger guys on the job that could have been up there doing it, however he WANTED to be the guy in there doing the hard/dirty work.

I get out of the office and work with the team. I really like to be on the difficult jobs. I started in this industry as a duct cleaner, went to installation, service and eventually management. I know the conversations that can happen when, as an installer or technician, you arrive to a difficult/dirty/uncomfortable job. I want my team to know that I will be there in the trenches with them.

I want to continually evolve as a leader. If you stop evolving, you become comfortable, stagnant and outdated. If you want your team to evolve and get better at what they do, you need to be evolving and getting better with them or they will probably move on to someone that will.

This year has pushed anyone in a leadership position to places we never would have thought we’d have to go. This spring, at the onset of the COVID-19 shut-downs, we had a choice to make. We could sit around and wait it out or we could adapt to it. We decided to adapt to it and my leadership position had to evolve.

We found ways to do outside-only work for our clients to keep our employees and clients safe. We would stand in lines for hours trying to get hand sanitizer from distilleries. We had to ask our CCRs to start doing health screenings before we sent someone out and other countless things to adapt to the current situation everybody has been facing.

As a leader, if you haven’t taken the time to thank the people who have stuck with you and helped get through this, make a point to do it. Without Bruce and the amazing team, I have in this with me, this year could have been a disaster. For a long time, it had been my thinking to put clients first. Bruce has taught me the employees come first. If you put your employees first, they will put the clients first.


Steve Saunders

CEO, Tempo Partners Inc.

Irving, Texas

My first boss was the founder of TDIndustries, Jack Lowe, Sr. He had many great leadership ideas and one that has stuck with me for 45 years is the concept of being dependable. In essence, this meant doing what you say, when you say you will do it.

No one is ever 100 percent, but Jack used to say that with dependability there was not much difference between 50 percent dependable and 95 percent dependable. All the difference came from the area of being 95 to 100 percent dependable.

I have a tendency to over commit. That can potentially lead to failures in dependability. My two biggest tools were to learn more discipline — meaning listen more, promise less — and to write down and keep a list of what I committed to deliver and when I promised it. Both of those have served me well.

At this stage of my career, leadership is primarily about preparing for the future. Some of that is planning and executing strategic investments to develop or maintain competitive leadership. But mostly, the future is about preparing people for enhanced leadership roles. Listening more. Encouraging often. Probing. Reminding. Supporting. Giving the freedom to try and fail and to learn from failure. The future is almost all about people.


Konrad Rybak

Owner, Air Blue Heating and Cooling

Wheeling, Ill.

Be fair and decisive like a dad, acknowledge good work like a mom and give work based on experience.

We segregated our installation and service based on personalities and knowledge. We ask for photos of before and after, then post it in an area that everyone can see. We are disciplining when it’s needed and rewarding when it’s due.

Throughout the years, I’ve learned about the different personalities and realized not everyone is driven the same way. One person can be motivated on making money, but another person values family time … the goal is to balance it all.


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