The Making of a Leader: The Construction Spouse as Business Partner

Like any other construction leader, the Construction Spouse will be challenged to communicate clearly, consistently and carefully

Like any other construction leader, the construction spouse will be challenged to communicate clearly, consistently and carefully.
Like any other construction leader, the construction spouse will be challenged to communicate clearly, consistently and carefully.

The construction spouse — now here is a true power player if I ever saw one in construction. Whether the contractor is a small “mom and pop” organization or a multi-hundred million dollar construction behemoth, the spouse of a construction owner or leader is often known, very well known. In fact, if secrets are revealed, the construction spouse is either very well liked and respected or avoided like the plague!

Why such polarization for the construction spouse? Well, let’s lay out a few common traits or characteristics about the traditional construction spouse.

  • Many construction spouses were there at the company start-up, i.e. they “lived the old days”
  • Most construction spouses were then, and are today, owners and partners of the business
  • Much of the bookkeeping, ordering of supplies, customer service and schedule-reminding fell to the construction spouse
  • Hiring and firing decision were often “blessed” by the construction spouse
  • Construction spouses may be the most knowledgeable about the company’s finance, project management, customer satisfaction and marketing efforts
  • If the construction spouse is extroverted, he or she most often vented joy or frustrations at work; if the spouse is quiet by nature he or she would burn his or her spouse's ears in the privacy of their home
  • Construction spouses made sure all of the employees had company shirts, hats, a Christmas bonus or gift, and saw to it that the employee’s children were given free school supplies in August

While more than a few construction spouses have been out on equipment, assisting their husbands in finishing up a job (some have even became quite good at estimating work), many more spouses spent their time “running the ship” from the view of the office. Here, in the office, they could see all activities as they appeared through billings, receipts, time cards, customer phone calls, supplier calls, and “the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

You obviously have noticed that I refer to the construction spouse in the feminine sense. That’s because most Construction Spouses are women. Over the past decade we have seen a slow but steady shift in this arrangement, but still the vast majority of construction spouses are women.

Briefly, back to my “polarization” reference. It is because so many construction spouses have been engaged with “running the ship” that workers could take such opposite views of the “boss’s wife.” Because the spouse possessed so much inside information, employees at all levels knew that she had all the “intel.”

Additionally, because the spouse wanted to succeed as much, or more, than her contractor husband, she was often defensive, perhaps even angry, at those workers who appeared to be lazy, careless or wasting the company’s resources while still collecting a paycheck. In every way, the construction spouse was the “protector” of the company. Her husband knew this and loved it. More importantly, the employees of the company also realized this reality and for those who wanted a strong, successful and great company to work for, they loved the construction spouse for her loyalty and her protective eyes.

Let’s take a look now at the Making of a construction spouse. If you are reading this article as a “flesh and blood” construction spouse you may chuckle at some of the teaching points I’ll be presenting. Hopefully, you will agree as to the importance of each point made. If you are a contractor or construction leader, either male or female, who has recently engaged your construction spouse in the business, you may find the following points of importance. No matter your situation, here are some great insights into the making of a Construction Spouse.

Be grounded on family values & what’s really important

No matter the role of the spouse, it is vital that she keep close to her heart, and emotions, the importance of family. The construction business, like the industry, will have many ups and downs. However, the construction spouse will do well to keep herself (or himself!) and her spouse grounded on keeping the family together through the cycle of business. The “big” picture is love, health, safety, and commitment. Remember, family first!

Understand the financial twists & turns

Because every contractor recognizes there are ups and downs throughout the year, it is vital for the construction spouse to also recognize the periods of the year when money will be rolling in and when money will be trickling. It is more often the construction spouse, especially if she is the designated financial officer for the company, who must be disciplined by prioritizing where to keep the money, when to spend it, when and how to invest it, etc. Similar to the squirrel that stores nuts for the winter, so too does the wise construction spouse who looks to put away a few extra bucks for a rainy day or lean off-season.

Educate the construction spouse on the industry

I’ve always been impressed with construction spouses who attend educational meetings, conferences and classes for their respected construction specialty. Most successful contractors are successful, I think, because their spouse took more than a financial interest in the company. Additionally, I have recognized many construction spouses who, after learning more about the industry processes, challenges, tools, etc., provide some of the best advice and wisdom to and for the business.

* One side note worth making. In a very rare case, because of the knowledge of the construction spouse for her company’s specialty, the spouse carried on the company’s business after a husband unexpectedly or tragically died. Because the living construction spouse knew her company’s business, perhaps as well or better than any other employee, the company continued and often thrived as the company employees rallied around the surviving spouse.

Engage the construction spouse in passing out checks

For many construction companies, payday has become an electronic deposit made into the bank account of employees. But even if you use an electronic pay system, there is still a need to connect with employees on payday. It’s a reminder for the employee that the owners are the responsible party that makes the payment for services rendered.

Engaging the construction spouse in being there at the shop or yard when the employees return from work and say “thank you” can go a long way to building positive employee relations. It’s also an opportunity for the construction spouse to hold short and private conversations with employees, asking about their families and interests, sometimes receiving information that her husband would have never received.

"Time-outs" throughout the season

It’s very common for contractors to drive long and hard throughout the year. If your business is seasonal you tend to drive even harder as you realize there will be a few months of downtime to recoup. For the 12-month contractor it is still critical to keep your mind about you to make important decisions for the company.

The construction spouse is simply the best one to purposely look at the schedule and the shortness of her spouse’s fuse. Scheduling those “time-out” weekends here and there, stealing her spouse for a mid-day lunch or early dinner, knowing that her husband and his crew may be working all night, can go a long way to keeping a sense of sanity and levity throughout the year. This is a toughie to pull off with some contractors but it’s one where the contractor needs to bow to the wisdom of his construction spouse!

Look to delegate task to work “on the business”

As the construction company grows and evolves, it will become more critical for the construction spouse to support the business, like her spouse, by working “on the business.” This “on the business” means working on those things that grow the business. Spending more time looking at important events to attend or charities to support or sponsor can add much to the business development of the company for the long haul.

This is not an insignificant teaching point. For many contractors who are “blessed” to have a construction spouse who is passionate about the company, this same construction spouse can be the best company ambassador to the community. And from personal experience in observing, coaching, and even training construction spouses on more business development practices, I can attest that a construction spouse may make more friends, create more relationships, and open up more doors to more business than the contractor can himself. This is just unbelievable!

Improve the construction spouse’s financial acumen

In the third point above I suggest that the construction spouse should attend educational opportunities for their company’s construction specialty. Additionally, I think that it is most wise to have the construction spouse learn more about accounting and finance. Getting a degree in finance or accounting is not my point here; gaining much more knowledge and confidence in money management is!

Simply, for most in-the-field contractors, a construction spouse involved with overseeing and effectively managing the company’s finances, is a confidence-boosting reality. Many construction spouses may never have thought of themselves as financial experts, much less the company “CFO,” yet the reality of most construction companies, especially the smaller family companies, is that the construction spouse often is left to balance and juggle the money.

Maintain regimen that maintains balance of life

Most construction spouses entered into a relationship with their contractor spouse that included construction. For some spouses, they may have worked previously in healthcare, education, banking, fast food, etc., either as an employee or perhaps they too owned their own business. No matter; along the way they may have begun some personal habits, regimens that gave them pleasure, allowing them to “exhale” and enjoy life a bit more.

For some spouses this may have been a physical hobby such as running 10K’s, water skiing, or participating in a pilates class. For others, taking in concerts, art shows, or gardening provide a great escape to re-energize your body. As a construction spouse, work hard to not give up such balancing activities. If it makes you relaxed, allowing you to give your all for the company, then keep as much of the regimen that you can afford. If you are mentally and physically “in shape” you will be more effective in your role and responsibilities for the company.

Learn to spot team-building opportunities

The construction spouse soon learns that every day can be full of challenges that can be detrimental to the company when the employees are not working together. Bickering, name calling, and taking sides often are symptoms of crews that are not functioning to their full potential. The construction spouse, if she is engaged with the business, will often spot this need before her husband, who may have his nose so low into getting the work done that he misses some of the dynamics that are ripping the crews apart.

The construction spouse, when observing such negative performance and behavior, would be wise to organize some teambuilding. This might be as simple as bringing some pizza to the jobsite for lunch or conducting some meetings before or after work that address how the employees can work better together rather than fighting one another. Heck, just taking the time to listen to some of the worker complaints and then addressing them can go a long way toward building greater teamwork.

Recognize individual contribution

This last learning point really addresses the fight against favoritism. It is quite common, and human, to like some people more than others. Some employees are just easier to like, to talk with and to appreciate. However, in construction it is important not to play favorites or pit one employee against another. Not every employee is super talented or gifted but can still be positioned to contribute to the overall success of the crew and the company. Important to raising individual’s potential, the construction spouse can be more active in appreciating the contribution of each employee and recognize that contribution with saying, “thank you.”

Like any other construction leader, the Construction Spouse will be challenged to communicate clearly, consistently and carefully. She needs to model expected company behavior, respecting the rules of the company, not taking advantage of her position as an owner, a spouse to the owner, or both.

The role of the construction spouse is not an easy one to fulfill. In many ways, the pressure is on the spouse to be professional, patient and proactive without giving the impression that she is questioning or undermining the leadership of her husband; truly a balancing act hard to maintain.