The Making of a Leader: Steps to Develop a General Superintendent

Great generals superintendents can make your company a lot of money, help struggling field leaders to improve and further your customer satisfaction with hard to please customers

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In a previous article, Part 1 of the Making of the General Superintendent, we examined what a general superintendent might look like, what attributes he or she might possess, and how to identify that person within your own company — or even outside your business. This article, Part 2 of the Making of a General Superintendent, will look at specific steps you can take to develop a GS once you have identified a person you can grow into that role. 

The role of the general superintendent might be new to your construction company. Perhaps you don’t consider yourself large enough to create the position but trust me: As you grow your company this very important role will gain in its importance to you as it will likely take a great amount of stress off of your shoulders and off the shoulders of other leaders.

Great Generals can make your company a lot of money, help struggling field leaders to improve and further your customer satisfaction with hard to please customers. All of this — and be more helpful informing you where you’re making your money and where you can make more!

“So, let’s look at how to develop a general superintendent”

Educate, expose, and engage

Contractors will need to get very serious about educating their current project/field leaders on a variety of disciplines common to construction. From federal compliance issues to the newest field techniques, to the always improving material developments, the general superintendent “candidate” will need more schooling than ever.

Supporting the increase in education, the candidate will need to be exposed to new areas of construction that they might not experience if they were to only focus on their current specialty. If the candidate is currently a project manager, maybe even an estimator, he or she might benefit greatly by being exposed to the latest “disaster” just discovered involving the poor placement of a concrete slab or the out of tolerance hanging of pipe or duct work.

Finally, being educated and exposed is important to the candidate but just as important is their engagement with actual hands on efforts. Whether it is sharing some of the physical execution with a crew or assisting the inspection of a finished effort, contractors will need to engage their candidates with all the opportunities they can afford.

Provide regular people skills training

Ok, we might have seen an incredible rise in manufacturing plants using robots or streamlined equipment; we’ll not see the same takeover in construction. Construction is still very much a people-based industry.

What has radically changed our industry is the greater diversity of people. This isn’t new for most contractors, but many contractors have been very slow at helping leaders develop more skills to better communicate and interact with such diversified employees.

Strengthening your general superintendent candidates on how to be proactive, positive and purposeful when communicating will not only increase their personal confidence, it will raise the confidence and trust factors in your employees who follow your leaders.

Let me provide a short list of people skills topics that you need to begin educating your candidates for general superintendent:

  • Listening skills
  • Communicating “101”
  • Team building
  • Customer/supplier relationships
  • Coaching and counseling skills
  • Conflict resolution
  • Electronic etiquette
  • Facilitation and presentation skills

That should be enough to get you started, but do start!

Involve GS candidate with estimating, pre-con, planning, preparation, “constructability” and project management

Ok, now for the “Masters” of continuing education. If you are still committed to the need of a general superintendent, you will need to enhance the GS’s “weapons of victory” by adding some of the very disciplines that make up our entire constructability process. It is in this area that you will need to have a serious and deliberate plan of action to implement.

While you might be able to send your candidate to classes for people skill development, you might be better off on this third development effort by involving your own team of experts to educate your candidate. Some contractors have adopted a rotation schedule for “fast track” candidates. This is not a bad way to go and can provide some good hands-on experience for the candidate, not to mention the chance to perhaps improve your existing processes in each of the disciplines.

The challenge for this step is the difficulty in maintaining the focus. There are great intentions, but as work builds up and time lines are shortened it’s easy to abandon this step. My only suggestion to combat this potential result is to set the rotation schedule that is loose enough to allow some “in and out” reality. Assigning a senior leader, perhaps even you, to oversee this effort will pay huge dividends in years to come.

Assist the candidate to think & act strategically

This fourth step also should be addressed internally, with your more experienced and wise construction leaders. Construction people are, by nature, problem solvers and fixers. They spot developing problems or unforeseen crises and they jump to resolve the dilemma. Such talent is needed, of course, BUT this is not thinking and acting strategically.

Many of our construction problems are preventable IF those who are leading the process think ahead, consider the potential for construction hiccups and hurdles, and plan ahead to prevent them. This is much more along the lines of strategically thinking and then taking the appropriate actions to prevent delays and rework situations.

This effort is made more meaningful to the candidate and more profitable for the contractor if a mentoring process is used. Providing a senior leader who has experienced a lot of challenges, learned from them and is able to pass down his or her lessons will go a long way toward making the candidate the general superintendent everyone hopes he or she will be.

Slowly require GS candidate to provide weekly updates on project efforts 

This is a very tactical effort to implement and can start almost immediately. I have found from personal experience that as I take the time to record what has transpired in my past week that I actually improve my retention and uncover forgotten tasks that need completing. Your candidate will experience the same results.

Keep it simple. I’ve referred to the weekly “Hi-Lo” report in previous articles. This is simply a weekly update that the candidate can create each Friday afternoon on the previous five days of work. It should include no more than three-to-five “highlights” of their week and three-to-five “lowlights.” Highlights and lowlights are to be short in number of words and written in a bullet-like format: short, sweet and to the point.

Now, having your candidate provide a weekly update should also require a senior leader to review each weekly update. If the update is kept to the “Hi-Lo” format, it will be read more consistently and faithfully. Then, as the senior leader reviews the update he can always request more information for specific items.

Don’t overlook the additional benefit in requiring your candidate to complete a weekly update. It will begin to develop a discipline in your future general superintendent for details and a respect to keep others informed.

Require post-project reviews & “Best Lessons Learned” from candidate’s projects

If your organization isn’t already performing “post job reviews” shame on you! How do you know how and where you made or lost money?

No matter, the candidate should also be “educated, exposed and engaged” with this very productive development experience. The one addition I would suggest you make to include your candidate with post-project reviews is to have him provide his observations as to what he took away from the review. This can be in writing or conducted verbally. The benefit is to really begin identifying if your candidate is “getting it.”

If he is not “getting it” you’ll know better what areas of improvement to address.

Expand the candidate’s scope of coverage

The coverage most often associated with a general superintendent includes looking over or leading more than one project at a time. For most large contractors who use a general superintendent each project has a superintendent. In this scenario the General acts more as an overseer, almost the in-house consultant to both the field superintendent and the project management team.

In the smaller construction company the general superintendent might oversee more than one job but perhaps personally serve as the superintendent on a specific project. While this might be necessary at any time of the year based on work load, I would always advise you to keep your General as freed up as possible from the daily tasks of a project specific superintendents. Such freedom will profit more projects and project leaders.

Ok, then when do you begin to expand the new general superintendent? Well, there is certainly no one answer to suffice here but here’s a few rules of thumbs to consider:

  • Push the candidate (an existing superintendent or project manager) to run his job and to take on a smaller project in an oversight role.
  • As the candidate gains a bit more confidence in his approach and time management, proving to himself that he can do this, add another smaller project for him to support.
  • From this point forward you will have to rely on how he is feeling and what you are seeing in terms of results. If you both feel like there is progress being made, you might begin to pull the candidate away from running his own job and have him begin to provide full-time oversight to three, five or more projects. At this point you obviously have a general superintendent.

Keep in mind that even the most talented and motivated General will have a limit to the number of projects to support and still be effective. Based completely on size of projects and the complexity of work you perform, I would recommend that a full-fledged general superintendent might oversee as few as three-to-five projects and as many as 10. There is no magic in these numbers of projects, just reflections of what I’ve observed.

In this endeavor “more is not always better” for the general superintendent. I’ve watched a General who oversaw more than 10 projects going on at the same time and he did a great job staying updated and effective on each project. And, I’ve seen a General who had more than he could digest on one very large project that had four to five superintendents working on it and reporting to him. It certainly depends on the talent and execution of the general superintendent.

Involve candidate more with senior leaders…both professionally and personally

This final recommendation is to involve your candidate, as he is developing and even after he assumes the general superintendent “rank,” with your senior leaders. In most construction companies the general superintendent is a “heavy” in the organization. Your senior leaders welcome his expertise and insights.

Whether or not your General has company ownership or is considered part of your senior leadership team, he should be very comfortable with all of your leaders. I have known several very good general superintendents over the years that were not treated with the amount of respect that they deserved.

If you are a contractor of size and have the general superintendent already in place, use this article to review with your General the “state of readiness” your company has for the future. I sincerely hope that you will see where you need to strengthen your development opportunities for the future.

General superintendents are certainly not “born”. That’s the good news!

The opportunity? Begin today considering your future and how you will raise up tomorrow’s general superintendent.