The Empty Bench

Success may depend on the development of the small unit leader.

Bottom of the seventh, bases loaded. The pitcher looks tired and the manager decides it's time to make the change. Reluctantly, he picks up the phone. (ring...ring...)The bullpen answers and the manager asks the question to which he already knows the answer, "Do we have anybody who can handle this?" There's a long silence on the line, followed by the same reply as last time: "Nope, the bench is pretty much empty. All we have is the new guy, but he hasn't faced anything like this before. I hope he can handle it."

Fall, 2007. Construction volume in your market sector continues to be hot. In fact, you just might have your highest-volume year ever. Margins are slipping a bit, but volume will cover you. Your biggest client just let you know they have some additional work that needs to be done ASAP. You pick up the phone and call operations and ask the question to which you already know the answer, "Do we have anybody who can supervise/manage this project?" There's a long silence on the line, followed by the same reply as last time, "Nope, the bench is pretty much empty. All we have is the new guy, but he hasn't faced anything like this before. I hope he can handle it."

Concerned, you hang up the phone. This may be your best client. Or, maybe it's a client you've been pursuing. Or, that last piece of revenue to put you over the top and give you a record year. Whatever the case, this is a great opportunity, but you don't have great people to put on the job. You accept it anyway, and your cross your fingers. Heck, back in the old days, this was how you tested and developed your guys. Things might still work out well.

In the words of former Army Chief of Staff, General Gordon R. Sullivan, "Hope is not a method." Yet, that's the primary philosophy for developing leaders in the construction industry today: Throw 'em in and hope they work out. Most every contractor is doing some leadership development these days, but the sad truth is that two models prevail. Model No. 1 sends a chosen few high-potentials to some off-site, high-dollar seminar or "learning experience."

Model No. 2 brings everyone in the company together on some Saturday in February, for the Annual Training Day. Contractors know they need to do something to develop future leaders, but they don't know what. They figure these methods are as good as any. The problem is that, by themselves, these methods don't develop leaders at all.

There is a third model. It takes the best of the two approaches noted above, and adds a third element - the critical piece that the most successful contractors have figured out. It involves the rest of the supervisors and project managers in a focused and prolonged effort to help them be more effective as they lead project teams. This model recognizes that developing people is more than a one-day event...that time and experience are still the best teachers...and that paying exorbitant training fees does not insure excellent results. It commits a company's resources and directs them where they will deliver the highest return - the supervisors and project managers who are directly accountable for running work profitably.

My active duty experience in the Marines proved to me, and now as a Non-Resident Fellow with Marine Corps University I am reminded, that the real leverage to win at anything rests with the small unit leader. The great military formations of history have all been built on a foundation of competent small unit leaders. The Marine Corps model doesn't send one or two future leaders to school each year. It sends almost everyone at particular pay grades. Those who don't go to school have the training brought to them. Leadership is synonymous with Marines, and their excellence in this art comes from many sources. But one of the key sources is the recognition that developing new leaders is simply part of the job. They understand the importance of small unit leadership, so they dedicate attention and resources to this vital position. Generals may set strategy, just as CEOs may decide what job to bid. Small unit leaders will execute that strategy at the tactical level, just as supervisors and project managers will build the project, no matter the bid margin.

There are plenty of excuses for not using the third model; I hear them often. There is one reason to embrace it: success. I know firms that are committed to developing leaders at all levels, using a variety of sources and methods. These firms recognize the impact of the small unit leader (the supervisor/project manager) and invest in them often. These firms succeed. They have qualified people on the bench, jumping up to say, "Put me in, Coach! I'm ready!"

Despite the crippling demographics that contractors face today, superior leadership can tip the balance in your favor. Solid leadership will attract quality labor to your firm. And with quality labor, you can knock it out of the park!

Wally Adamchik is the President of FireStarter Speaking and Consulting, a national leadership consulting firm based in Raleigh, NC. You can visit the website at or email him at His new book is No Yelling ( is available online.