How Competent Are You as a Business Owner?

by Kacey Larsen

There are two main ways to measure your competence as a remodeler. The first is your trade skills—the ones required to actually produce the work you offer and sell. The second is your competency as a business owner or, more importantly, as a business manager. Both are important skills for qualified remodelers; however, if you are a great craftsman but a poor business person, your business may never really generate the profits it should. Growing your business without the right skills and knowledge may put you out of business. In fact, the most common reason for small business failure is allowing it to grow too fast without the systems in place to support that growth.

Managing a growing remodeling business requires skills in several areas. Some remodelers gain these skills through trial and error, a method which takes a long time and can be very costly due to expensive mistakes, as well as lost opportunities while you figure things out. I have observed that many remodelers using this method end up working until they just can’t do it anymore because a planned retirement wasn’t possible. Others take advantage of outside resources to find, understand and implement industry-best practices. This may seem expensive at first glance, but with the right resources and a commitment to follow through on what needs to be done, your business should be able to quickly pay off the original investment. Due to such improvements, the business can accumulate much more profit during the balance of its existence on your way to eventual retirement.

To help you better understand how to gain competence as a remodeling business owner, it’s important to understand there are four stages of competence that we all go through as human beings. They happen in the order I share here. I suggest you identify where you are now in regards to your competence as a business owner, and then recognize what you will need to do next assuming you want to advance your competence.

Start Unconsciously Incompetent

In this stage, the learner—or business owner—isn’t aware a skill and/or knowledge gap exists. Often good carpenters who leave their jobs to start on their own are poster children for this stage. Typically, they lack any knowledge or consideration of things like legal liabilities, employment laws, the real costs of overhead—the list goes on. Essentially, they are blind to these considerations, many of which become unpleasant surprises when they do pop up. Until then, the business owner cruises along fat, dumb and happy.

Experience Leads to Conscious Incompetence

Over time, the business owner becomes exposed to challenges and is surprised by certain things that happen to them and/or their business. Examples might include dealing with inadequate cash flow because they undercharge, or mistakenly collecting for work after they do it rather than before starting each phase or milestone. When these types of things happen, the business owner starts to become conscious there are things they do not know, but they still don’t know what to do or how to solve the challenges. At this stage, you must decide to either seek the knowledge needed or put your head back in the sand and ignore what is happening.

A Commitment to Professionalism and Success Leads to Conscious Competence

In the conscious competence stage, the business owner has found and started taking advantage of the help and/or knowledge needed to properly do things, but is still learning. They may know how to use the new skill or perform a new task, but doing so also often requires lots practice to improve and conscious thought about what they need to do, plus how and when to do it. It’s important to recognize there can be a lot of hours and hard work to put changes in place. One example would be learning and using a formal sales system. As you learn the new system, it may be very obvious to prospects that you have been attending sales training because of your mechanical-sounding approach simply due to a lack of adequate practice so far. With practice and experience, however, you can move from learning to owning the new skills.

Eventually, Unconscious Competence

You will know you have reached unconscious competence with certain skills once you are able to do them unconsciously. Essentially, because you first learned and then had adequate experiences using the new skills, you no longer need to think about what or how to do something; you can and just do so. It is extremely important to recognize for yourself as a business owner—but also for aspiring and growing employees—that new knowledge alone on a subject will not lead to unconscious competence. Experience, or what is referred to as “schema,” is a prerequisite of unconscious competence. Only through experience will we own the ability to do the things we learned without having to think before acting or reacting.

One Last Thought on Competence

Be careful about achieving unconscious competence. If you assume your journey is over, you may end up blindsided at some point. The world is constantly changing. If you and your business are in the comfort zone of unconscious competence, you may become unconscious of the need to return to conscious competence. That could be unfortunate! QR

McCadden is a speaker, business trainer, columnist and award-winning remodeler with more than 35 years of experience. He can be reached at

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