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Future Leaders: Where Will They Come From?

The following article was authored by Ulf Wolf and originally published on Construction Dimensions.

Over the last several years, many of AWCI’s member contractors have voiced the concern that they see no clear candidate to hand the reins when the day comes to retire. Also, they wish there were more young aspirants entering our industry—both as crew and to select from and groom for managerial positions.
This situation begs some vital questions, which this article hopes to answer:

  • How do we make construction an attractive career choice?
  • What are the best ways of spotting managerial talent?
  • What are the best ways of retaining managerial talent?
  • How do you foster such talent to create skilled managers?

A Construction Career
For many young people today, construction does not top their list of career choices. How can we change that?
“I think it will have to start in high school,” says Gilly Turgeon, president of Green Mountain Drywall Co., Inc. in Vermont. “I truly believe that not all kids are meant to go to college, and I think that high school counselors need to push these kids toward a life in a construction field or another hands-on field of some type. I try to tell these kids that in a few years from now, the current work force will be retiring en masse, and there will be plenty of opportunity to make good money by using their hands.”
Chuck Taylor, director of operations at Englewood Construction, an Illinois general contractor, agrees: “I think our biggest asset in construction is that anyone can make a really good living in this field and that it is a very welcoming industry, regardless of race, gender and, in a lot of cases, abilities. Ours is an industry that emphasizes training throughout our careers, and I believe that is the message we need to put out there. Also, we have to continue to be supportive of college and field-apprenticeship programs.”
“In the Bay Area,” says Craig Daley, president of Daley’s Drywall & Taping in California, “we promote the advantages of a building career in a union area with good wages and benefits, enough to allow a real retirement.”
“We need to hold career fairs for both high school and college students,” suggests Howard Bernstein, president of Penn Installations, Inc. in Pennsylvania. “We are proud of the rates and benefits our people earn, but not many young people have the trades on their radar because they are unaware of this information.”
“We need to reach them at a younger age, when at middle school,” says Scott Turczynski, owner of The Heartland Companies in Iowa. “Many schools have removed shop classes from their curriculum, so kids are not exposed to our professions. We need to work with the schools on that.”
“In the next 12 to 15 years,” says Pat Arrington, principal at Commercial Enterprises, Inc. in New Mexico, “computers will replace a large percentage of jobs now being done by people—except, a computer cannot build a building. That’s why construction is a safe career for those who choose to learn our trades.”
“When we talk to potential recruits,” says Sabra Phillips, director of talent development at Marek Brothers Systems, Inc. in Texas, “we share with them our vision of our company’s future—just like we describe what a new structure will look like once we have built it—along with our roadmap for getting there. We then offer opportunities for them to be a part of building this future with us, and help us deliver on those opportunities.”
“When you want to attract great candidates,” says Norb Slowikowski, president/productivity consultant at Slowikowski & Associates, Inc., an Illinois consultancy, “it’s very important to create a positive image in the marketplace so that candidates can discover the quality of the company they are considering.
“A good candidate will look for the following (among other things) in an organization:

  • Open communication encouraged at all levels of the organization.
  • Employees involved in decisions, planning, implementation at all levels.
  • Diversity.
  • Institutional fairness emphasized in terms of equity, privacy and benefits.
  • Performance is recognized and rewarded.”

While the college industry (a multibillion-dollar enterprise) would like to see every child in our nation attend and graduate college, many are neither suited for, nor inclined toward, academic achievements. For these young people, perhaps in the majority, construction offers a very well-paid career path, while their college-grad friends flip burgers.

Spotting Talent
How do you recognize a potential future leader for your company?
“We have to want to spot him or her,” says Taylor. “We have to challenge people constantly and monitor and nurture their work and accomplishments. Employees with management potential will go above and beyond the task at hand, and we must be receptive to and observant of this.”
“Look for people skills,” says John Kirk, owner of Kirk Builders in California. “Also, look for things like being self-organized, being on time and being responsible. Keep the Boy Scout’s motto—be prepared—in mind. That’s a pretty good yardstick.”
“I look for those who take charge of a task,” says Dave DeHorn, chief estimator at Brady Company/Los Angeles, Inc., “those who complete it with little or no help. These people make decisions and find a way of getting things done. I also look at employees who come to me and have a plan to do something in a more cost-effective manner. People who ‘put in’ more than they ‘take out’ will generally become long-term management possibilities.
“Lastly, I look at how these employees interact with their peers. Are they respected among their peers, or are they isolated from them? The latter could be a sign of a problem.”
“I once heard that real managers are born, not trained,” says Daley, “and there is some truth to this. A natural manager will just take charge, will suggest ways to do things differently to the point of driving you crazy. But you must harness that energy, provide specific training and, after some experience, you’ll have a great manager.”
I believe,” says Phil Ruffin, president of Pontiac Ceiling & Partition, LLC in Michigan, “that it is best to look inside your own organization for your next leader. Most companies have this talent if you provide them a path to grow into that role. Once you’ve set them a path, you’ll see a change in the individual that will reflect the position where they are headed. If you don’t provide such a path, there is no reason to expect that an individual will grow.”
“Do they go above and beyond in what they do?” asks Turczynski. “Do they have a sense of urgency? Do they attend after-hour activities where they network? Do they work extra hours, or can you set your watch by their comings and goings? These are all good leadership behavior.”
“I look for dependability,” says Arrington. “Are they always available to assist another person? Also, do they want to learn? Do they want to lead?”
“From my perspective,” says Phillips, “you are looking for a combination of a few things when identifying leadership talent. Keep your eye on people (1) who consistently deliver great results, (2) who do this in a way that aligns with the values of your organization and (3) who others respect and seek to work with. Encourage these individuals to continuously expand their leadership and learn by taking on more responsibility and/or stretch assignments.”
A leader must want to lead. If he or she does not, it’s leading a horse to water all over again—he will not drink if he doesn’t want to. But if the individual you consider is looked up to by others, is ethical and innovative, always learns from his or her mistakes and does want to lead, you have a potential gem on your hands.

Retaining Talent
Once you have spotted and begun to rear young talent, how do you keep him or her in your organization? Bright people are sought after by other companies, too, and poaching, as you know, is not unheard of.
“We have to impress upon our younger employees that loyalty goes both ways,” says Taylor.
DeHorn suggests you should “constantly look outside your company to see what your competition is doing for their employees, and make sure you are offering your people at least as good a deal.”
“Hiring still remains largely word of mouth,” says Daley, “and good word-of-mouth referrals are created by giving existing employees a good place to work. Be straight up, pay the appropriate rate, treat them as you would want to be treated. and you’ll have very low turnover and a positive work place to boot.”
Bernstein muses, “It’s tough for older generations to understand what motivates younger people, but hopefully an open ear and honesty still count for much.”
“Internal paths are the best way to keep your staff and maintain stability of your company,” says Ruffin. “This would be the first and foremost action to take.”
“As far as retaining,” says Turczynski, “culture is key. Having a fun, family-oriented culture with performance-based attitude and compensation is the mix that has helped us grow and retain talent.”
Fairness and honesty are values that tend to flow both ways. Though they might not openly say so, employees will value this more than money alone. Feeling welcomed and at home in a company provides a security that money never will. It also makes for a happier life.

Fostering Talent
Once you have spotted your talent and made him or her feel at home in your company, how do you train and grow this person into a true leader?
“Using a trade analogy,” says Kirk, “it might be like an apprenticeship. Instead of a journeyman teaching an apprentice, you need a highly skilled leader taking the prospect under his or her wing. This, of course, would need to be someone secure and wise enough to want to share such skills.”
“I believe you encourage people to ask questions,” says Bernstein, “and give them the authority to take initiative without fear of reprisal. Southwest Airlines’ reputation for ‘hiring for attitude and training for skill’ fits perfectly for our industry as well.”
“Both college-educated and field-trained workers can be effective managers,” says Robert Aird, president of Robert A. Aird, Inc. in Maryland. “A large and forward-thinking mechanical contractor in the Washington, D.C., region advertises ‘laborer to apprentice to mechanic to foreman to project manager.’ That is a viable path to management. Conversely, we see college-educated project managers who are unable to provide proper sequencing of trades or schedules that are realistic. They may be great on the computer, but they lack real-world field experience.”
“By mentoring,” says Turczynski. “Spend time with them. Show them the ropes and be available as much as possible so that your ways become their ways—or better. Don’t always give them the answer. Make them give you an answer and try and go with theirs if it makes sense. Help them grow.”
“Those we foster,” says Arrington, “need to have a little ‘greed’ in their makeup. I do not gamble or get into football pools because I am a poor loser, and I will not accept losing. Those we train need a similar attitude; they will not accept losing. Yes, we all lose at times, but we try to design around that possibility, and we do not accept losing easily. Skill is self-generated. We all work for perfection. We may have to work longer hours to get the job done, but we will never tell anyone we worked extra. That is our secret. Teach this.”
“Developing people,” says Phillips, “isn’t all that different from constructing a building: Start with a future vision of what you want to create, develop a plan, find the right partners to work with you, build the foundation, and hold yourself accountable to the schedule one floor at a time. Yes, surprises and challenges will happen. You will need to adjust your plans and resources, but knowing what will be built in the future and the impact it will make keeps pulling you forward.”
You can study management and leadership until it comes out of your ears, but nothing tops actually managing and leading, and this, almost without exception, is achieved through mentoring and guidance by an established and respected leader who is willing to train someone else.

Other Thoughts
“My fear,” says Turgeon, “is that the management part of our business is going to be the easiest part to fill. If we don’t have a workforce, we won’t have to worry about managers.”
Kirk observes, “Most new construction project managers and project engineers I run into are graduates from Chico State and their special program. I can usually tell when a new guy has graduated from there after I talk to him for a short while. They all have the same mentality—more like school graduates than construction professionals.”
“One misguided notion in this country,” says Aird, “is that all youth must go to university. This has negatively affected many fields, from construction to manufacturing, and any field that does not necessarily require a college degree. And this has done a great disservice to the many who were uninterested, unprepared or unable to afford a college education. It seems this dilemma has finally come to public attention, and there is a rush now to make career training available. There have always been trade schools and training programs, but now the need has gained more traction.”
“You have to start training way, way ahead of time,” says Daley. “If you’re thinking of retiring in the next five years and you don’t have the next generation already trained and ready, you won’t make that five-year date.”
Ruffin concurs: “The biggest mistake many owners of companies make is not having a substantial transition plan for when they decide to let go of the business. A comprehensive ownership transition plan could take five to 10 years just to develop and potentially another 10 years before transfer of ownership is complete. Don’t wait. Develop your talent years ahead of time.”
Barrington quotes Benjamin Franklin: “Experience is the best teacher.” Then Genghis Khan: “He who fails to plan, plans to fail.”
“Something important to remember,” says Phillips, “is that an individual may or may not be interested in leading and managing others. There are highly capable people who for any number of reasons may prefer an individual contributor role serving as a technical expert rather than a people manager role—either for a season or throughout their careers.
“Rearing leaders is easier said than done, and we work to get better at it every day. One way to ensure it stays front and center is to include people development as a standing agenda item in your monthly or quarterly management meetings or on your calendar. Set goals and timelines—who will do what by when. Treat it like a project.”
And finally, from DeHorn, “Be fair to all employees and respect them. And have some fun.”
Who can argue with that?