Making the Right Choice for Your Next Supervisor

Contractors are always looking for that next supervisor. Always! In more than 20 years in the consulting field, most of that to the construction industry, I’ve never seen a let-up in owners and senior leaders discussing where they will get their next supervisor or crew foreman.

Leadership is simply high in demand and low in supply. Promoting your best technical worker to a supervisory position has left many contractors regretting the move. Why? Because not every superstar worker is a lock to be a superstar field leader. While you certainly want your supervisors to be knowledgeable, they do not have to be the smartest worker you have. Likewise, they do not have to be the best craftsman, operator, driver, etc.

Then how do you find the right individual to be a supervisor? And if you are lucky enough to find the right individual, how do you train them to be fully prepared for the increased responsibilities? We will address both questions in this article.

Finding ‘Mr. Right’

It is often difficult to see some employees as possible leadership material. And just as often the individuals who may be interested in becoming a supervisor are either not to the contractor’s liking or is perhaps just wanting to be viewed as more important than the rest of the workers. Sometimes the employee who broadcasts his desire to be a supervisor simply wants a pay raise.

Interestingly enough, my experience over the past several years has been that many of the better construction supervisors were not politicking for the position. In fact, the extremes of emotions found varied from an employee interested in the promotion after being invited to think about it to the employee who really has no interest at all in becoming a supervisor. What’s a contractor to do?

First, do not let a good employee fool you into thinking that he really isn’t interested in a leader’s position. Most smart construction workers realize that being a supervisor is no picnic and that if they just want to make more money, there is a good chance they’ll make more with overtime than what the supervisor might make if he is salaried.

Second, good candidates for the supervisor’s position may become open to the thought once they hear more about the specifics of the job. This requires that the contractor has developed a “roles and responsibilities” plan for the position. This document should clearly state what key roles need to be fulfilled by the supervisor and the list of responsibilities he will have in fulfilling such roles.

Now, still the question lingers… “How do I know if I’ve got Mr. Right?” Consider the following characteristics.

The Employee:

  • Demonstrates good work habits
  • Interacts well with other workers
  • Looks to solve problems
  • Rarely whines or complains... at least publicly
  • Remains "in control" when others are out of control
  • Is calm but direct when addressing difficult situations
  • Projects loyalty to the company and projects without "brown nosing" the boss
  • Technically is sharp enough and what he doesn’t know, he isn’t afraid to ask

While the above characteristics are not exclusive, it should provide you with some ammunition to use when looking at your existing team of workers to decide if “Mr. Right” is within your rank and file. If he is not, then you will need to look outside the company for a supervisor.

Training ‘Mr. Right’

If you believe that you will simply promote an untested construction worker into the supervisor’s role and then have no more work to do, please call me for some swamp land in Florida that I’d love to sell you. Once you have promoted your choice for the supervisor’s job then the work has only just begun.

Consider a few of the following steps to train your rookie supervisor.

Spend one full day simply outlining and discussing the supervisor’s position.

  • Clarify what your expectations (as the owner/senior leader) are for the position.
  • Spell out the actual roles, responsibilities and performance standards that the position will require of the supervisor.

Commit to supervisory and leadership training.

  • Send him to classes if available.
  • Hire a “coach” for your new supervisor.
  • Assign a mentor for your new supervisor.

Schedule your new supervisor to “shadow” another supervisor.

  • Schedule this one to two weeks before the promotion.
  • Have the new supervisor briefly describe what he learned at the end of each week of shadowing.

Communicate clearly to your field crew who the new supervisor is.

  • Ask the crew to support the new supervisor.
  • Meet with any crew member who has any “baggage” with the new supervisor; get differences discussed and settled quickly.

Not all “thoroughbred” workers want to be a supervisor. In fact, if you have any really hard-working employees who are making good money, without the pressures of being the boss, don’t be surprised if these workers are not interested. We need good workers at all levels and besides, hard-working employees are informally leaders among their peers, so don’t be too quick to push them to formally lead.

Finally, don’t take the selection and more importantly, training, of the next supervisor lightly. No matter whom you choose, they will make mistakes and will have conflicts on the field level with employees, vendors and customers. Your objective should be to educate your leaders to be professional in all situations, not giving way to anger or foolish talk.

Brad Humphrey is president of Pinnacle Development Group. He works with construction companies across the United States and Canada assisting them in their training and development of leaders at all levels. If you are interested in learning more about PDG’s Leadership Boot-Camp, you may visit www.pinnacledg.com or e-mail Brad at brad@pinnacledg.com.

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