Today, having local leadership in place to develop and grow your business is probably the last thing on your mind. It's well documented how slow sales have been since the expiration of the federal tax credits. Frankly, many builders struggle to keep the people they have now. Still, this slowdown will pass, and competition to (1) retain your talent, and (2) find new talent to lure into home building will make it feel like 2004 to 2006 all over again!

Since 2007, builders have had to trim staff by 75 percent to 80 percent of their predownturn workforce. Most large builders have a robust human resources planning process that allows them to make these difficult decisions as fact based as possible. Even though such a process might help determine who the better candidate is, it doesn't help assess whether that candidate will stay with the company when the market returns. Only senior leadership can build that loyalty, and the time to do it is now.

Senior leadership's focus now is on doing prudent things to lower costs and return their company to profitability. Most builders not only reduced staff during the downturn but also cut base pay, eliminated bonuses and other performance-based comp, pared or eliminated 401(k) company matches, dropped company outings and trips, and increased the amount employees have to pay for company benefits. Clearly, that's the right “business” thing to do, but if you're on the receiving end, it doesn't feel very good.

As market health returns, you're going to face a new batch of retention challenges, including new builders with new assets and tempting comp carrots. The stress on your leadership team's loyalty could get to a breaking point.

How do you make sure that the talent you're striving to retain now will stick with you as the market rebounds? Here are a few easy tips—and they won't cost you a dime.

  • Face the issue head-on. Make the effort to talk with your leadership often about the state of the business and how that's affecting your ability to pay the wages they may desire.
  • Speak openly and honestly about your plans. Let your top talent know they're your most important asset! More than anything else, people need to feel valued. You can't have this conversation soon enough with your top talent. It's on their minds now.
  • Seek employees' input in compensation design, and act on the feedback. If people don't know what your plan is, they'll assume it's the status quo. Guaranteed, your competition eyeing to build a new business will not be status quo.
  • Let your leaders make discretionary local compensation decisions. If you want to retain people, let those you trust most—your local operators—decide what's right and what's unnecessary. A business with a “one size fits all” mentality will only cost you money—not save it. Let leaders lead; if you trust them on multimillion-dollar land transactions, trust them to make a $5,000 adjustment to someone's base pay! Keep the dialogue flowing, and check your ego. It's much better to have your local leadership tell you what's happening on the compensation front and let you react to it than to suddenly receive their two weeks' notice and watch them grow a competitor's business.
  • Keeping your best and brightest on board after market recovery isn't going to be easy, but if you face that fact today and deal with it openly, you position yourself to retain top talent. Retaining that talent is going to be critical to your ability to attract new talent into our industry. That will be our topic next month!

    Steven Petruska is the former executive vice president and chief operating officer for PulteGroup, where he was responsible for all domestic home building operations. With more than 26 years at Pulte Homes, he previously held the positions of area president, division president, and division vice president of finance. He may be reached at