The Virtual Construction Leader

There is a new word beginning to creep into the vocabulary of construction companies, especially growing or already existing large companies. Virtual!

I was introduced to the term several years ago while doing some leadership training for Compaq, before they merged with H-P. Most of their young technical managers worked through created teams that would each take on special projects for the company. However, what made the leading of such teams so difficult was that most of the team members or project teams were located in different cites around the world.

One leader might have a project member or team in Bangkok, one in Toronto, and one in London, beside Los Angeles and Boston. Therefore, the leader running several teams had to almost be virtually everywhere at once...but couldn't! Thus the need to stretch the leader's skills to be able to oversee, coach, inspect, etc. multiple projects at different locations.

Now, your company may not have a project crew in another country, or even another state but if you lead multiple crews and they are all not on one job site, you completely understand the almost helpless feeling of wanting to be everywhere when you know you can't be. Let me provide you with a few action steps that will help expand your leadership impact to multiple crews at different project sites.

Virtual Tip No. 1
Over-Emphasize "Pre-Con" Planning

This should happen even if your project is across the street from your own office; however it is especially important when you're not going to be on a job site daily. To put this thought bluntly, most construction fails miserably on a good and consistent pre-construction effort. Line up the players, processes, protocols and procedures that will be engaged and executed and plan every step possible for the project. Literally address the 5Ws & H for the project. (Who, what, where, why, when, and how!)

Virtual Tip No. 2
Schedule On-Site Visits & Tele-Meetings AEAP (As Early As Possible)

I find that the better virtual leaders, in construction, have regularly scheduled site visits and telephone meetings that are documented coming out of the pre-con effort. This effort isn't left to a "Yeah Bob, I'll try to get with you next week," or "Hey, call me when you get things going." no, No, NO!! You immediately scheduled just interactions as this begins to place greater respect and accountability for players and process. Also, with regularly and known contact moments, whether in person or by phone, a leader is building the same mental thinking process for his or her project leaders that would exist IF the leader were to be on a project more often.

Virtual Tip No. 3
Institute the Weekly "Hi-Lo" Brief

The leader must maintain every advantage that they can muster. I created the "Hi-Lo" brief several years ago for project managers and regional managers in construction companies who oversaw two or more projects. The Hi-Lo requires the on-site leader or leaders to identify the top five "highs" for the past week and the bottom five "lows" for the week. This brief would be developed late Friday afternoon and would be e-mailed that day to their respective senior leader. The Hi-Lo is to take only a page and should be less than 2-3 sentences per high or low. The items should represent the highs and lows for the project, i.e., those items that impacted the project's performance...good or bad! If the senior leader wants more information then they can always request more info or data. This brief keeps the senior, virtual leader, in touch on what is going on without getting caught up in all the minutia that they would not be embroiled with anyway!

Virtual Tip No. 4
Set Levels of Required Input on Decision Making

This tip is a bit more flexible but essentially what it requires is a break out of the percentage of decision making a virtual leader wants from their different project leaders. Briefly, 85% of the decisions made on-site are those decisions that should be made by the crew leaders, project managers, supervisors, superintendents, etc. alone. The next 10% of the decisions being made would be of the type that would require at least the input from a senior leader. And finally, 5% of the total decisions being made would require not only the input from the senior leader but probably the "go/no go" from the senior leader.

Discussing this fourth tip should be made part of the pre-construction meetings. There should be a very clear lining out of the type of decisions that will be made at the individual project and who is responsible for what actions. For the virtual leader the types of decisions made by one project team of leaders might differ from another project team. Thus, what is considered 85% - 10% - 5% for one leader may be different, and supported, by another leader. If necessary, and it will probably be necessary, the virtual leader and his "satellite" project teams should document as many examples of each percentage of decision making type so there is little to no confusion on direction.

Virtual Tip No. 5
Maintain Regular but "Spontaneous" Personal Visits

Depending on how far away your crews or projects are located you still need to make some visits in person. There is still nothing like having the "boss" show up, especially un-announced, to the site. The spontaneity of the visits actually raises the bar a bit on the project leaders to keep a better organized, clean and safe environment, not just spruce things up in preparing for a site visit. It is also important to not only make such visits when there has been something bad that has happened or when some outstanding action or milestone has been reached. While there is certainly nothing wrong with visiting in these two last situations, your personal visits should be done however at less than obvious times. This tends to keep a bit more honesty within the process and players.

"Pre-Virtual" Tip - Get the Right Virtually Led People Involved to Begin!
Sorry, but I just couldn't let us close out the article without stating what may be obvious but can be difficult to fulfill. Putting the right people on any project is critical but it is doubly critical for the virtual leader leading crews and projects "cross country." Not every individual can work without regular and visible leadership. Most employees complain about being micro-managed however many of the same complainers are often the first to go lazy and become confused over the easiest of issues...without their immediate leader close by for reassurance. This type of employee must be highly scrutinized before placing them on a project or crew in a "far, far, far, away" place to work.

Leading crews and projects, virtually, is hard - very hard - but not impossible. However, there are several extra efforts that a virtual leader will need to make in order to stay on top of their performance. Remember, "out of sight; out of mind," is quite common in this industry. A virtual leader must overcome such thinking and this will require first that the leader put the tips shared in this article to work for them and those whom they will be leading...virtually!

Brad Humphrey is Co-Founder of GangBox, Inc., a full service provider of consulting services and training materials for the construction industry. Brad continues to speak at some of the largest construction conferences around, including the World of Concrete (For the fourteenth year!) as well as maintaining a consulting relationship with construction companies in the United States, Canada, and now Australia. For more information go to www.gangboxinc.com.

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