Leadership in Construction: Building Skills for the New Economy

Criterion Webinars
February 23, 2022

Across industries, high-potential employees are most often promoted to leadership roles for being good technical performers—and the construction industry is no different.

But flawless technical skills don’t necessarily prepare someone to succeed in a leadership role in construction.

So what are the qualities of a great leader? Better yet, how can you build those skill sets in high-potential employees?

Practical leadership skills for construction field leaders aren’t exclusively about project management or technical execution. “It’s more about how leaders can work within the organization,” Steve Kuhn, chief sales officer at Criterion HCM, shared in a webinar on leadership skills in construction. Leaders also need strong “soft” skills to motivate and inspire their teams.

Here are the top leadership skills in construction and some ideas for cultivating them in yourself and your team.


Strategic, Big-Picture Thinking

Strategic thinking starts with acknowledging that you have to step back from the daily tasks to look at the big picture.

“When you get to certain levels in an organization, you need to be able to get out of the day-to-day and actually spend time and have intention around: ‘Hey, what's this going to look like five, 10 years from now?’” said guest speaker Gloria McConnell, senior consultant and executive coach at Success Labs. According to McConnell, the most significant barrier to becoming strategic is simply finding the time to do it.

We tend to get absorbed in putting out fires at work, and people are often recognized and rewarded for their effectively navigating crises.

If you want your organization to become more strategic, McConnell said, then you have to consider your answers to these high-level questions:

●     What do you value most?  

●      How are you signaling that value to company management and leadership?

●      What are you expecting from your senior leaders and even your middle managers?

●      What are you rewarding in the organization?

●      Do leaders across the company have time to be strategic?

The tasks executives give senior leaders and middle managers time to complete signal your company’s top leadership values. Traditionally, most companies prioritize short-term productivity over long-term planning. “Productivity and results can be the death of being strategic,” McConnell said.

Activities that foster strategic thinking may go unappreciated in many work environments. These activities include developing relationships with people, having open-ended conversations, and speculating about the company's future, to name a few.

Most leaders struggle to make time for strategic planning, typically because they also struggle with delegating. Some leaders are uncomfortable letting go of their daily tasks and trusting that employees will execute the work on time and at the quality the firm needs. But without separating themselves from the daily responsibilities of construction management, leaders won’t have the bandwidth to devote to strategic, big-picture planning.

That’s why delegation is the next critical skill for leadership in construction—empowering future leaders to become more strategic.


Ability to Delegate Effectively

Learning to delegate is challenging, especially for high-potential employees promoted to leadership roles for their technical proficiency. They tend to be perfectionists in their work and can have a much harder time delegating, McConnell said.

Letting go of daily work is hard. Leaders are still held accountable for their team’s performance, and trusting someone else enough to delegate that work to them can be challenging.

Quality of work is a significant factor, too. Typically, people who have done the best job on tactical work are the employees who get promoted. But, by promoting them, we ask our top performers to stop doing the work they are good at.

Instead, promotions often call for helping other people get better at their work. The qualities that make us good individual contributors don’t make us good leaders—and can even get in the way when employees take on leadership roles.

Learning to delegate can be subject to a vicious cycle. You’re too deep in the day-to-day work to find the time to delegate some of the tasks effectively to others. If you aren’t clear in that handoff, the work performed may not be up to par, and then you’re spending even more time working to correct it. No wonder many new managers decide it’s easier just to keep doing the work themselves.

And yet, they will need to make some kind of upfront investment to reap the benefits of delegating work. “In the short term, it’s harder; it’s going to take you longer,” McConnell said.

It’s also important to remember that it’s OK not to get this right the first time. Taking the opportunity to open a conversation offering constructive feedback is itself a vital leadership skill for the construction industry.


Offering Constructive Feedback

Construction leaders must be able to give effective feedback to help their team members improve their performance.

When you delegate something to a team member, check-in early and often to make sure they’re staying on track. Set project milestones that are reasonable and align with that particular person’s ability.

Communicate your comfort level about handing control over the work to someone else. You shouldn’t micromanage your team members, but you can acknowledge that you’re feeling uncomfortable as you learn to let go of the work. “If that's what helps you to delegate, then start doing that,” McConnell said. “But be transparent about it.” If you’re candid, most people will understand your concerns with delegating work to them.

Set up appropriate checkpoints to audit the quality of your team member’s work and offer your feedback. During these checkpoints, be honest with people about your assessment of the quality of their work. If it doesn’t meet your expectations, you need to say something quickly. We tend to be shy about offering feedback.

“I feel like the world is divided in terms of giving feedback into two different types,” McConnell said. “Those who say that giving negative feedback is hard, and those who are doing it the wrong way.” Letting someone know their work isn’t up to par should be a little bit awkward, but it paves the way for improved trust and better work outcomes.

Be direct and candid with your feedback, and use this formula for communicating both praise and advice: “These things look good: thank you. Next time, I want you to do these things this way.”

By letting an employee know how to improve the work for “next time,” you signal that you aren’t taking the responsibility away. “Your people who want to develop, want to grow in the organization, they want challenges,” McConnell said. “They're motivated by doing different, interesting work.”

Try to anticipate how each person will react to your feedback so you can respond appropriately. Some people just want to know what they did wrong and how they can improve in the future, while others want praise for the work they’ve done well. To give good feedback, you need to know your team’s personality traits and communication preferences well so you can tailor your messaging to each individual.


Passing on Leadership Skills in Construction to the Next Generation

Top-level leaders and executives, look around your strategy table.

Suppose everyone at the table already knows how to think strategically, delegate effectively and give constructive feedback. In that case, it's a signal that you need to bring some more people into the room. “A lot of times, middle managers struggle with strategic thinking, broad business perspective and so forth,” McConnell says. “Bring them into those kinds of meetings.”

Future leaders need to get exposure to how leadership in construction works and practice exercising their leadership skills. But that can only happen if current leaders invite future leaders to participate in the construction leadership process.

Let your internal leadership candidates practice leadership skills in construction early and often. Expect to devote time to directing and guiding them.

Begin by identifying their weaknesses. Many high-potential employees can be impatient or overly driven. They may not be sensitive to other people’s feelings.

You need to diagnose the state of their interpersonal, listening and other leadership skills early so that you can begin a targeted leadership development course. “Development happens on the field, not on the bench, ”McConnell says. “The only way that you’ll know what you have is to put people into play.”

Only through practice and tactical leadership in construction projects will you be able to see each high-potential employee’s unique leadership styles in the construction industry emerge.

Building relationships with future leaders is critical to helping them gain confidence in their abilities. “Fostering those internal relationships is really all about helping the organization grow,” Kuhn said. “Part of that is building confidence in who you have on board.”

Give future leaders a chance to gain greater insight into what goes on at the top leadership levels and see leadership skills in construction flourish at your firm.


Watch the full “Leadership in Construction” webinar on-demand to learn more.

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