5 Steps to Improving Leadership Skills among Mid-level and Senior Leaders

How to lead your leaders to minimize the risk of having poorly developed leaders who are incapable of achieving more profitable results.

There are few companies that have an organized education program for this very critical level of the company. Few business owners and senior leaders take an active role in the development of their own leaders.
There are few companies that have an organized education program for this very critical level of the company. Few business owners and senior leaders take an active role in the development of their own leaders.

Hopefully you have a great group of leaders in your organization. Whether they are department managers, sales managers, superintendents or crew foremen, leadership is critical at every level within any company.

But, who’s educating this group of leaders?

The easy answer, of course, is either the owner or a senior leader. Yet, when it comes right down to actual development there are few companies that have an organized education program for this very critical level of the company. Yes, such leaders might attend a conference periodically but there are few business owners and senior leaders who take an active role in the development of their own leaders. In short, there is a lack of leading the leaders.

Educating your leaders might be the most significant thing you do to bolster the internal operations of your company to directly improve your production. The investment will pay huge dividends as leaders begin to make better decisions, follow more closely the values and strategic direction set by senior leaders, and demonstrate better leadership to their reporting employees. Let’s take a look at a few efforts you can make to strengthen your leader’s performance.

Spend time with your leaders

This is a toughie to maintain for busy and growing companies. As a senior leader in your company it is often easy to fall into the trap of having to be everywhere else but with your leaders. I’ve heard owners sometimes say, “They’ve got things under control; they can handle things.” I fear this is said more in hope than in confirmation of what is actually happening.

Now, while we want our leaders to perform important and needed responsibilities it remains important for owners and senior leaders to spend time with their leaders. Such time may be spent discussing specific challenges, discussing upcoming jobs or just talking about each other’s families. This time spent slowly begins to shape the leader’s values, expectations and focus along the line of what the owner desires. In short, it builds strong relationships that are anchored in trust, understanding and appreciation for skills and talents.

I have found successful construction owners and senior leaders meet with their leaders, individually, two or three times a month. Certainly the president/owner of a construction company with 20 employees might, on the surface, have more time to spend with her leaders than, say, the owner of a company with 500 workers. In reality, it seems that most owners and senior leaders are all very busy so time spent with their leaders becomes even more critical.

Build 15 minutes of education into your staff meetings

I probably sit and observe more than 20 staff meetings a year. While a healthy percentage of these meetings address needed issues there is still a period of time that is just wasted (though simply installing an agenda and sticking to it can remedy that problem). 

But another opportunity that most contractors miss with their staff meetings is the educational potential. For many organizations, a staff meeting is likely one of the few times that all of the leaders are present in one sitting. As part of your meeting agenda, carve out 15 minutes and dedicate that time to a learning moment. I’ll share a few ideas about what you can use during this time in the next point, but let me provide a few quickies now.

The 15-Minutes of Education could include discussing:

  • A specific technical question that has been challenging workers
  • A customer complaint that is still plaguing your client relations effort
  • A “best practice” learned from a difficult job
  • What safety improvements need to be made and why
  • How to coach problem employees
  • How to motivate workers

The potential educational opportunities are endless and topics can come from your day-to-day situations. Tackling any difficulty or lessons learned is always good because that directly relates to the company. The key here is to always slant the discussion with the following questions:

  1. What did we learn from this?
  2. How do we adjust our efforts to make it right or better?
  3. How do we communicate this change to our workers? 

Another good educational “tool” to use during these 15-minutes of education is to role-play certain scenarios that leaders might be facing. For instance, you might engage your leaders in role-playing a coaching situation on the jobsite with a “challenged worker.” Another example might include role-playing an interaction between a leader and an irate customer.

These 15-minutes of education can become a terrific development boost to your leaders. The safety of learning among like-focused leaders can reinforce to your leadership team that you are all about their best, leading their best!

Engage some non-traditional educational methods 

Taking your leaders away from your company for hours to days at a time is costly, not just in actual travel and conference costs but also because they’re not out there on your jobs. We’ve got to find some other methods, then, to educate. Consider a few of the following educational efforts that are much less costly and can be more productive:

  • A Monthly Book Chapter Review & Discussion. This involves selecting an easy-to-read book, say on leadership, and having all of the leaders read just one chapter a month. At the end of each month engage the leaders to discuss what the chapter meant to them and how they can incorporate the principles or techniques presented into their own leadership effort. I’ve personally seen this effort work nicely with leaders and have led such efforts for several organizations. The owner could make this part of the 15-minutes of education at one staff meeting a month.
  • Video Your Competitors at Work & Debrief. I actually watched this effort done by a contractor a few years back who would video some of his direct competitors performing work and then replay the tape at a staff meeting. This was genius! Not many leaders (or your workers) feel comfortable critiquing their own performance, but show the competitor and you will bring the house down with the “experts’ opinions.” This effort is quite educational and can also reinforce what your firm is doing well or not as well compared to the competition.
  • Engage Your Leaders to Develop a Leadership “Code of Conduct.” This is quite educational as your leaders actually develop the standards and actions that they believe are best representative of the culture of your organization.

Once this is developed take one of the items and build some training time around it at a staff meeting. Consider a few examples of Code of Conduct standards:

  • Treat all workers with respect
  • Follow-up with requests made by others
  • Confront wrong performance professionally
  • ensure that every job is pre-planned and prepared
  • Represent the company well even in personal life

Obviously the standards developed will be subject to your company and its leaders. The key here is to engage your leaders in this educational effort and then leading them on how to live and lead the same.

Commit and execute the “one minute coaching” effort 

A minor adapting of a principle presented in the book, The One-Minute Manager, you need to commit to taking advantage of those coaching moments when they come around. Nothing has the full impact on any leader’s development than when their senior leader takes the time to provide a coaching moment. Opportunities appear daily to coach so be prepared!

Use the “Hi-Lo” leadership report

This tool is one that I’ve used with my own staff successfully and have introduced it to many in the construction industry. Simply, have your leaders send you a brief (one page or less) review of the past week that includes three to five highlights and three to five lowlights.

These are to be brief and in bullet-point format. The leader is not to write a long explanation to defend or brag about any Hi or Lo item. By keeping the Hi-Lo brief you don’t require much time from the leader completing it — and it takes even less time for you to read and keep updated on some of the week’s happenings. If you want more information you can always follow-up with the leader.

It will take you a few weeks to get some of the bugs worked out, but once you do you will begin to see the effort put out by your leaders. This also becomes another “leading the leader” opportunity.

Most construction owners and leaders recognize the need to keep their leadership team primed and poised. Yet, the reality is that many owners and senior leaders pay little attention to actually developing their leaders. In the short run this might not have a negative impact on the business; in the long run, the same owners might run the risk of having poorly developed leaders who are incapable of achieving more profitable results.

Recommit to educating your leaders. For a small personal investment of time you will be strengthening your entire organization. Another side benefit to this effort that I’ve observed is that most owners and their senior leaders also improve their own knowledge and leadership along the way. Thus, by following the recommendations presented in this article you will be creating a win-win situation!

Educate (Lead!) your leaders!