5 Steps to Making a New Construction Leader

Development of a field leader requires more management support than it did in the past.

Jack's top crew foreman, Matt Black, was retiring in little more than nine months. Matt had been a loyal, knowledgeable, and effective foreman for Jack but had failed in one area: getting his successor ready to go. As Jack surveyed the crew he realized that not one of the workers could quickly step in for Matt. Jack was beginning to feel what he had only heard other contractors talk about: He was losing some very valuable experience and he didn't have a backup plan.

As the "baby boomers" continue to age, an increasing number of contractors are realizing that giving a laborer the opportunity to become a field leader might require greater support than in the past. "Jack's" example is one of thousands that have either begun to take place or will be taking place over the next few years. Owners and senior construction leaders need to start now to take an aggressive look and develop a plan to address what is surely going to be a huge challenge for business owners in the construction market.

One important skill new construction leaders need is the skill it takes to incorporate, or melt together, the many different faces that will make up their crew or project team. Here are five tips to help do that.

First, the New Construction Leader (NCL) must view and treat each employee equally. That is, he cannot risk alienating any of his workers due to their thinking that one employee is more important than another. This is a common mistake by new field leaders, especially those that have been promoted from within their crew to be the new crew leader. Past experiences and attitudes are sometimes hard to let go of, and it's hard to prevent that from interfering with future decisions.

Second, the NCL must ask the older, more experienced workers for their ideas and suggestions. Often, the more experienced worker has shut down simply because their leaders, including the owner, no longer solicit input. This is a huge mistake for any leader but can really stall the development of a NCL as he is learning his craft.

Third, the NCL needs to be more engaging with the younger and less experienced worker. Talking through work processes and making better decisions on how to align workers on the job can go a long way toward getting the best effort from the newer worker. Less experienced workers in the construction industry are often timid about asking for help or clarification. This must be engaged by asking the workers what strategy of work they will be using that day. Even asking the older or more experienced worker to coach or partner with the less experienced worker can assist in this effort and provide good returns for everyone involved.

Fourth, the NCL needs to attend some construction leadership conferences, perhaps even receive short-term coaching by a consultant or someone who can provide solid advice to the "newbie." Too many construction leaders have failed to receive such support and their companies, and crews, have suffered for it. There are simply too many good resources available today not to provide good leadership development. Just as common is that the owner of the company is too busy to fulfill this coaching effort personally or, quite honestly, shouldn't be a trainer or coach because he isn't gifted in this area.

Fifth, and finally, the NCL will benefit greatly by engaging the cross-section of experience and ages once a month with a lunch or after-work meeting. Such meetings should discuss what the crew or project team has learned over the past 30 days, what needs to be corrected, and what lies ahead over the next few weeks. This meeting is normally very productive as it gives everyone a chance to reflect, present ideas, raise questions, and to problem solve as a team. For the young NCL this effort can take a tremendous amount of pressure off of having to do all the thinking and begin to transition the workers to become more engaged with production, quality, safety, and customer satisfaction.

It is a bit different today for construction leaders. A greater amount of expectation is on their shoulders to lead and manage safety, quality, customer retention, OSHA, HAZMAT, DOT, internal relations, goal achievement, on-time completion, etc. In fact, for some construction leaders it is becoming more difficult to actually be on the jobsite to lead. Construction owners must work hard to free their field leaders up more to lead and direct their work crews and be less engaged with non-construction processes. However, in the smaller company, this too can become quite a challenge where every leader wears multiple hats.

It's important that owners and senior leaders have a plan on how to develop their new construction leaders, providing training, support, and guidance at a level that they personally may not have received. New times call for new efforts!