Most leaders would likely say that customers are more important than employees. I have read the books that tell you that a customer-first strategy is what works. However, fast-growth companies operate differently. They believe in putting employees first. Today’s guest is Sean McGraw, Founder at FOR Energy. Inc Magazine ranked his company #1982 on the 2021 Inc 5000 list. FOR Energy is a full-service residential energy company serving Arizona, Nevada, Florida, New Jersey, and South Carolina. They help homeowners reduce their energy costs through solar power and energy efficiency. Sean shares his reasons why putting employees first drives growth. Discover the shifts he made that have made the most significant impact in terms of putting employees first.
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Sean McGraw: The Transcript
About: After graduating from ASU with a degree in Sustainable Energy & Materials, Sean founded Affordable Energy Solutions—which would eventually become FOR Energy—with his father Brian in 2010. When not performing solar consultations, you can find Sean giving back with the Phoenix 20-30 Club or ASU’s GlobalResolve.
Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.
Sean McGraw: If you have a happy cohesive team, that’s taking care of. , a lot of other things fall in place. You’ll retain people longer, they’ll have higher morale. , the biggest thing to me is when they’re happy, they typically serve our customers at a higher level, so, and serve each other at a higher level at, at the same time. So it’s an exp when I look around and I look at admirable companies and companies that I just, I aspire to be, or they’re doing amazing things. They typically have an employee-first type of mentality, and it shows.
Intro: Welcome to Growth Think Tank. This is the one and only place where you will get insight from the founders and the CEOs, the fastest-growing privately held companies. I am the host. My name is Gene Hammett. I hope leaders and their teams navigate the defining moment of their growth. Are you ready to grow?
Gene Hammett: Employee loyalty, maintaining employees retaining talents. All of these conversations are happening across organizations today, as we get back to work, as we move forward past this whole pandemic thing. When you think about what does it take for you as an organization to create a place where you attract the best talent, where they maintain that workforce, they really are engaged and they really are loyal to what you’re doing. You want to make sure that you understand the principles inside today’s episode. Today, we look at putting employees first. You may be thinking that customer first is the only way to run the business, but let me help you put this in context. If you, as a company put customers first, that’s the right formula. But you, as the leader must put the employees first because they are able to put the customer first. They are able to do this because they’re not worried about their job, they are not worried about you know what’s going on inside the organization, because they’re aware they’re growing, their skills are developing. There’s a lot that goes into putting employees first, but you want to make sure that you don’t get this out of context.
I call this the impossible question. I’ve asked many people around this and it goes like this. If you’re the leader of a fast-growth company, what’s more important? Customers or employees? Will fast-growth companies will say its employees, 93% of the time. Now that’s a big number, but what it really means is fast-growth companies understand the importance of their people, maintaining them, retaining that talent, attracting new talent. And they know they have to create an employee first, movement inside the organization so that they’re willing to put the customers first. That’s the way this goes. Now, when you understand this, you can become a better leader. Today’s guest is Sean McGraw. He is the founder of, FOR Energy, they were on the Inc list. They were number 2,705 in 2020. And it really, this whole concept of putting employees first, we’ll help you understand. What does that really look like? Why is it important and how do we do this across the organization to do this consistently over time? When you think about your job as a leader. It’s to put employees first and so that they can put the customers first.
When you think about all the things that are necessary for you to be the best leader, you can be, you might be a little bit confused because there’s a lot of books out there. There’s a lot of things that you’ve probably got going on inside the organization. And so it’s not common for you to actually know what is next for you to work on as a leader, one of the tools that we use inside the organization, as a conversation with me to help you really figure out where you’re going. What’s next for you. And this game plan will help you get really clear about how you show up as a leader and what you need to work on next. All you have to do is reach out to me, [email protected] and that’s my email address. But if you just want to check out the website, genehammett.com, you can see how to schedule a call there. Will help you become the best leader you can be help you scale growth and help you increase the value of your company. All of those things are possible, and I can help you create that game plan. Just go to genehammett.com. Now here’s the interview with Sean,
Sean, how are you?
Sean McGraw: Doing well, how are you? Thanks for having me.
Gene Hammett: I am fantastic. Excited to have you on the podcast.
Sean McGraw: Excited to be here. Thank you.
Gene Hammett: Well, we were just talking about the business and some of the changes going on in the industry of electricity and all of the things changing with electric vehicles and everything else going on before we dive into today’s topic. Tell us a little about your company FOR Energy.
Sean McGraw: Sure. So FOR Energy is a full-service home energy company. So we do everything from energy audits. That’s kind of the discovery process to doing the corrective work on the efficiency side. That could be windows, HPAC, installation, all the way up to generating your own power with solar panels.
Gene Hammett: Now, a lot of people resist that whole audit process, and I don’t want to get into deep into this, but you have figured out a way to kind of tune in to what’s going wrong inside of our home. And you have the systems and tools that allow you to do that and determine what you need to fix first because it’s the biggest energy drain or suck inside of our wallets. , did you discover this yourself?
Sean McGraw: So there’s a, there’s a program here in Arizona where we’re headquartered, and that kind of drove me to get used to it and kinda kind of figure it out. You know, if I’m a homeowner and I know nothing about energy and I have high bills or I’m uncomfortable, I may just call my HPAC company or call my installation company. And that’s usually not the first step to fixing the problem. In fact, sometimes you invest in those things and you’re kind of burying a deeper problem. So we’ve gotten really good at promoting the audit and really promoting the value in doing that before you make any kind of correction.
Gene Hammett: I’ve seen this work in many industries. So I know how much, how powerful it is to give people tools and analysis of what’s wrong. And I guess the next thing is, this is what you need to fix. And are they coming to you to fix those problems?
Sean McGraw: Absolutely more times than not. They are. I’m sure. Sometimes we run into somebody who’s brothers and HPAC professional, and they think, or they think they can do it themselves. But most of the time they come to us and people are extremely happy with the results. Because when we test it and know what’s going on after we make the corrective work, we’ve just got a much higher chance of successfully solving the issue for the customer.
Gene Hammett: We could talk all day long about energy and our electric vehicles. Both of us are Tesla owners. I really love this idea. Of course, I talked to you a little bit about my background in the energy industry and demand-side management and the books I’ve written in that area 30 years ago, but today we come to talk about this concept of putting employees first without giving you too much coaching and kind of put context around it. What does that mean to you?
Sean McGraw: To me, It, it, well, it means everything right? If you have a happy cohesive team, that’s taken care of, , a lot of other things fall in place. You’ll retain people longer, they’ll have higher morale. , the biggest thing to me is when they’re happy, they typically serve our customers at a higher level. So, and, and serve each other at a higher level at, at the same time. So it’s an ex when I look around and I look at admirable companies and companies that I just, I aspire to be, or they’re doing amazing things, they typically have an employee-first type of mentality and it shows.
Gene Hammett: Where did you learn this from, if you just learned it from looking at other companies and trying to figure out what, what really was driving their success?
Sean McGraw: Probably a combination of things. So I read a lot of books and, it could have been good to grade. It could have been another, another kind of business book, but it talks about the concept, of taking care of your people and your people will take care of your customers. And when I became conscious of that, I started looking at a lot of these companies in my space or another space that you can just tell from the outside, looking. They’ve got an amazing culture and there are people who are extremely happy. They’ve got great reviews, great customer service. And I started just noticing common denominators between a lot of these companies.
Gene Hammett: When you started to accept this. Where did you start first, in making this happen across the company?
Sean McGraw: That’s a really good question. So, you know, I think every company, it takes some time to really find their identity and ours are shown in our core values. And so step one for us was who are we? What do we, what do we want? Who do we want to bring on? What kind of talent do we need? And when we established our core values, it gave us kind of this, this foundation to make hiring decisions, promotion decisions, firing decisions, all of those kinds of things because if you don’t have that, you don’t have your compass of who you’re trying to bring on and what direction you’re headed. So that was the biggest thing for us. And after that, it just allowed us to do a lot more for our people.
Commentary: Now, Sean just talked about core values. You may be thinking that you’ve got these covered. The main reason why you want to have core values is that you want to make sure you’re bringing in people that can operate the way you want them to when you’re not in the room. And these core values create boundaries and create a context for them to make decisions. If you’re empowering them to make decisions for the organization, for their teams, and to be strong leaders, you want to make sure the values are consistent, they’re clear, and that everyone knows how they apply to the work that we do. Now, when you have it at this level, and this is granularity, you will have employees that know what’s expected of them. There will be no question about how they make these decisions, as long as they’re in alignment with the values. Now, when they start getting outside of values, that’s when the tension starts coming up. And that’s when you have to lead the people to understand what you know, how to make these decisions, how to wrestle with the values that are in place. That’s a very different conversation, but the real reason for having core values in the organization day in and day out is so that they can make decisions when you’re not in the room. And that’s all about empowerment back to Sean.
Gene Hammett: A lot of people think core values is something you do once. And then you kind of get down to work and actually start getting clients and serving clients and building products or innovating products. , is it something that we would see across your organization in a consistent basis? Or is it that one-time thing?
Sean McGraw: So core values can definitely change, but you know, this, this comes from a couple of other businesses books. A lot of people choose core values based upon what they want to be and not what they are. And there’s a very important distinction between the two. What you want to be is something that you might not be good at might not be something that you’re living and exhibiting, especially as a leader. This is, this is where a lot of core values fail. If a leader is not living the core values, why should anybody else in the organization? So when you’re choosing your core values, you should really choose who you actually are, what you actually believe in because it, it shows. And so if you do it the right way and choose them properly, it can last nothing’s forever, but it should, you know, it should go with the test of time.
Gene Hammett: You had mentioned something about aspirational values. Why does that not work for you?
Sean McGraw: So I’m generally an unorganized guy. Like if you looked at my desk, I have belongings all over my desk because if I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist. And one of the core values that we tested, in a previous life is lean, take care of the office, run, lean, be organized. And I’m just not that way. It was a fraudulent core value to me. So I could try my hardest to always be that, but I’m not that. So we revisited and sure it’s something that we can practice and work towards, but it, it ended up not being a core value to who we are.
Gene Hammett: I want to go into one of the benefits you said of, of this employee-first concept and putting employees first, you mentioned maintaining employees. I know it’s a big drag on the bottom line and con continuity of service and ability to continue growth. If you’re continuously having to hire people, get them trained up. , many people think that that the data is about one times the salary. And I think it’s even more if they’re a knowledge worker, if they’re expected to make decisions and lead people, it takes more than that to, to really get them, you know, hire someone and bring them up to speed. How is this really helping you maintain in the workforce you have?
Sean McGraw: Yeah. So as long as somebody fits our, our core values and, and they, they fit and they’re, they’re living them, it, it keeping them happy and doing what’s best for them. It keeps them around longer. It, it retains them. They’re happy to be here. They wake up, you know, before this podcast started, you had brought up that you love Mondays. You love what you do. You’ve even got stickers that say, I love Mondays. You know, when people wake up and they enjoy coming to the office and they enjoy their coworkers and they all share the same values and direction. People stick around for a much longer period of time. And the mistake of, you know, well, not a mistake, it’s just kind of a circumstance where you’re some people always hiring and having a lot of turnovers, it’s way more expensive than taking care of your employees to a certain extent, for sure.
Gene Hammett: What other things would we see if you’re taking care of the employee?
Sean McGraw: I would say a combination of things. I mean, you, we’ve got a, we’ve got a culture committee, we’ve got a service committee. , one of our core values is servant leadership. So serving each other, our customers, and our community, building those relationships with, with our people and, and having more of a family atmosphere, we’re, we’re very flexible. If somebody. And emergency, we encourage them to take care of it because, you know, what is their, why, why did they come to the office? It’s usually not just for a paycheck. It’s usually to support a family or to do bigger things. And we really support whatever that “why” is for our people.
Gene Hammett: You had mentioned, and the culture committee and a service committee. Give us a little idea of how they’re structured and who is running those.
Sean McGraw: So we have a volunteer that runs both of them and the committee people are volunteers as well. So for our service committee, it’s really simple. They, they find service projects or service opportunities where we, as a team can go and usually serve our local community. Cause I, I believe in everybody here believes if, if our community is better, we are better because of it, and then on the culture committee, it’s, it’s creating opportunities for people to really have fun and bond and enjoy what they do. So we do, you know, during work type deals where we’ll cater food or we’ll do a barbecue all the way up to, we took our team up to Northern Arizona and went crawfishing. I mean, it just depends on. What we’re able to do at the time.
Gene Hammett: I think a lot of companies think those are just kind of nice to have, but I’ve seen a lot of companies like yours that have embraced this. They feel like it’s a mandatory element for us to have the kind of workforce we want. , have you seen that across your company?
Sean McGraw: Absolutely. So, you know, we haven’t always done this and before we, we did it and we were conscious of it, you know, It’s not great and exciting to go and do the same thing every day, without any kind of positive interruption, it becomes mundane. It just becomes kind of the way things are. So we really try to disrupt in a positive way and take people out of their silo. We’ve done, office tours of other companies. And to some people they’d be like, oh, I don’t, I don’t want to do that. The second they get there and do a tour of a really amazing company. They’re inspired, they’ve got new ideas. It, it betters them, you know, personally and professionally and sometimes even financially. So I do look at it as a, as a must. And in fact, I notice if too much time goes by and we haven’t done something as a team. , I sense morale dipping a little bit, or people becoming frustrated. It’s just to me, it’s a necessity. ,
Gene Hammett: The office tours that you’re doing. I know you’re seeing a lot of different probably outside your space. So probably not the industry is your, your competitors aren’t inviting you in, but you have a chance to go look and see what other people are doing. What’s one thing that you just felt like you needed to steal this ethically and bring it as a part of your company.
Sean McGraw: Yeah. So when I talked about lean earlier, being a failed core value us. The reason we even implemented it in the first place, because we toured this really, really amazing recycling company here in town. And it is a special tour. I will tell you what it is there. They run on lean principles. It’s based on a book called the two-second lean-to second improvements every day. And we saw, you know, the staff of this company. Take a lot of pride in what they do and take it even a step further and be creative in making their jobs more efficient. So from everything, from doing chores around the office to, you know, if I’m working in a warehouse and I’ve, I’m on an assembly line, what can I do to make myself and this process more efficient? It was just truly special. Our team left extremely inspired. And at that moment, we decided to do more of that because, you know, if you sit in your silo all day long, you’re not going to learn much.
Gene Hammett: Efficiency is a big part of you guys do what you do for others is making homes more efficient, making their, their furnaces work appropriately. And now that you come back and say, we need to improve our processes, we improve these homes. You see the alignment there. Right?
Sean McGraw: Totally. And it’s amazing to see.
Gene Hammett: I want to turn the spotlight on you a little bit because you have. , develop some leadership skills and some awareness. And one of them is around caring. Caring is a very interesting word for a lot of leadership because quickly someone will, will in their past. They can think about when they’ve been taken advantage of maybe they believe someone, maybe they donated money to a family and it wasn’t, you know, the up and up. When you think about caring for employees. What is the context at which you bring to that, to the organization?
Sean McGraw: Yeah. So first of all, I, I just believe that strong leaders need to have a couple of things. They need to have a strong connection with their people and connection. , there has to be true care. You, you have to truly care about your people in order to serve them best. And then the second one is you have to have high standards. So when high standards meet high connection, you, most of the time will be a successful leader. You know, everybody has things going on in their lives and struggles at work and struggles at home. And you, you’ve got to be able to communicate with them on those kinds of things. You’ve gotta be able to coach them and help them and, and be flexible with them. Empathy really does lead to a lot of things. Loyalty being, being one of them.
Gene Hammett: Have you ever cared too much?
Sean McGraw: There’s probably been times where I’ve cared too much. Yes. It’d be hard for me to say no. , especially in times where, you know, I’ve got a good person in the past, that’s left where we do have a strong connection or maybe because of something I wasn’t being a strong leader at the time and, and they left because of that. Or maybe I didn’t care enough and it created some turnover, so yeah, there’s, there’s definitely been times where I’ve cared too much.
Commentary: As Sean just talked about caring, caring is something you want to make sure you bring to your leadership. You want to make sure people feel understood. What that really means is you’re listening. You’re truly helping them understand themselves and helping them understand the situations they’re in helping them make their own decisions. You don’t want to make the decision for them. You don’t want to direct them unless you have a new employee, then that might be a little bit more common, but as you have senior-level people and you’re expecting them to be more like leaders, you want to make sure they’re making their own decision. They feel that sense of empowerment. And you’ve got to make sure that they, they feel cared for one of the largest things that you can do as a leader is to make sure that each one of your people knows that you care for them at a personal level and care for their own development as an employee. And when you do this consistently over time. You will have higher retention rates. You will have more loyalty. You might have more transparency. You have all of those good things that happen inside of this. Now you start taking out this care, then you start to lose trust. And I don’t want that to happen to you. I share these messages with you to help you really put a spotlight on how do you improve your leadership? Caring is a cornerstone of how you connect with people back to Sean.
Gene Hammett: But for the most part you don’t let that really impact you in the way you care across this. So, you know, you as a leader have set back and wrestled with the fact without caring you can’t have the organization that is the way you want it. You can put employees first without the sense of caring.
Sean McGraw: You have to absolutely care about your people. You do, and you have to hear them.
Gene Hammett: We’ve talked about a lot of things today. Sean, I want to give you a chance to maybe bring it home or add something that we may have missed in this putting employees first. What do you think? , we wrapped up this up with.
Sean McGraw: Oh boy. , that’s a really good question. I, the employee first topic, it’s, it’s just, it’s ultra-important taking care of your employees, make them take care of each other, take care of the company and then take care of your customers. And when all of those things are happening at you should have a thriving growing business, assuming everything else is in order. But take, take care of your people because I promise they will take care of you and it’s. It’s foundational.
Gene Hammett: Well, thank you for being here in the show and sharing your journey of leadership.
Sean McGraw: Absolutely. Thanks for having me, I appreciate your time.
Gene Hammett: So Sean is still listening in here. I’m just going to recap a little bit of this. I have studied a lot of companies as well, and I see the power of putting employees first. Putting employees first is not putting, pushing the customer aside, it is truly putting employees first so that they will put employees or put customers first. And your job as a leader is to make sure that they feel understood. They feel connected to this and this, some of the things that Sean has been sharing with us are exactly what you can do as a playbook. You know, the things like having a culture committee, having a service committee, having someone else run this, cause he didn’t say he was running it. It was done by the volunteers of the organization. They want to be a part of things bigger than just the work. But they also know that there’s some improvement and efficiencies that they can do, and they want to feel this place where leaders are connected to them. All of this is about you being the best leader you can be and being extraordinary and how you move forward.
We have an incredible group of founders and CEOs called a fast-growth boardroom. If you think you’re a good fit for that, just check out fastgrowthboardroom.com. , it’s mostly for fast-growth companies. You don’t have to be in 5,000, but that’s where we really focus on people that are driven to create this kind of space, and nearly a hundred percent of them, 93% are employees first.
I didn’t share the data earlier, but I wanted to focus on what Sean was bringing to this. But our research shows that you have to put employees first if you want to grow a fast-growth company. So just check out fastgrowthboardroom.com. When you think of growth, when you think of leadership, think of Growth Think Tank. As always lead with courage. Will see you next time.
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