Five Leadership Habits that Engage People

Culture is a top-down phenomenon: team members watch leaders closely – every action, decision, gesture and comment are taken as cues for “what the boss wants / expects / values / prefers.”

Anyone can say the right thing when they’re making a speech or do the right thing when they’re on-stage, but daily behaviors – the things we do automatically – send a stronger message.

At Humanus Solutions, we coach leaders to develop habits that engage people, open lines of communication, and promote the desired mindset.  Here are five leadership habits you can use today to engage your team:

  • Learn (and use) people’s names. This may be obvious, but time-and-time again, when we interview members of high-performing organizations, people at all levels report feeling they know and are known by folks at the top.  When you greet the receptionist or security guard by name, not only does it make them feel good, other people notice – and it makes them feel good too.
    Pro-tip: can’t remember someone’s name? Ask them! (And ask again, If necessary.) It may feel awkward, but people will cut you slack if you’re making an effort.
  • Be visible at the ‘gemba’.Gemba’ is a Japanese word meaning ‘the actual place’ – in this case, the actual place where your organization’s work happens: the job-site, the call center, the control room, etc. When the people ‘turning wrenches’ in your organization see you regularly, they feel respected and connected to the organization.
    Pro-tip: show up on off-shifts and overtime too!  A boss who turns up in the break room at 11pm to chat with the night shift will be legend… especially if they bring doughnuts!
  • Ask open-ended questions. Many managers talk more than they listen, but questions are an effective tool to get people talking and thinking about topics that are important to the organization.  The trick is designing questions that require people to express themselves: “What do you think about…”, “Tell me about a time when…”, “How would you handle…”.  We have a few lists of questions to get you started.
    Pro-tip: Don’t be afraid to push back or challenge people look at other sides of the issue: “What about this…”, “What would you say to folks who think…”, “If we did that, what would happen when…”  This shows that you’re listening and respect their opinion.
  • Give work back to people. When leaders start learning names, going to the gemba and asking questions, they often hear complaints and requests – fix this, buy that, and straighten out so-and-so.  It’s tempting to leap into action in response to this feedback.  Don’t do it.  Listen to what people have to say, but leave the responsibility for the issue with them  “I hear you: what’s your next step?”, “I get it: who’s the right person to handle this?”, “I see.  What’s your part in this – what can you do about it?”
    Pro-tip: if you do agree to look into something or address an issue, you must follow-up, even if the answer is, “Sorry. Not going to happen.”
  • Build relationships with front-line leaders. Culture happens from the top-down, but culture change lives (and dies) in conversations between workers and their supervisors.  If you’re interested in changing the performance of your organization, it is vital to have open lines of communication, and ready access to foremen, shift-leads, crew chiefs, duty nurses, etc. – the folks communication your directions to the troops.
    Pro-tip:  Everything we’ve said so far applies doubly for your relationship with front-line leaders: learn and use their names, visit them at the gemba, ask them open-ended questions, and don’t let them put you on the hook for work they should do.

Employee engagement isn’t complicated, but it’s not easy.  The behaviors we’ve listed here may seem too simple and obvious to make a difference – and if you do them once, or once-in-a-while, they won’t make a difference! But leaders who take simple, visible actions to engage people each and every day will reap the rewards of switched on employees, open-lines of communication, and greater willingness to take on the organization’s challenges.

Interested in learning more?  Ready to develop your leadership habits?  We’re ready to help. 

About the author: Andy Erickson is a founder and principal consultant at Humanus Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in people-centric leadership. He can be reached at

Twenty-five Questions to Get Foremen Talking (and Thinking)

Next time you’re tempted to make a speech at your foremen’s meeting, ask them a question first.  It gets your audience engaged, personalizes the topic and makes it more likely your message will land.

With a little practice you can come up with good, open-ended, authentic questions about any topic.  Here are some to get you started.

Questions about keeping people safe

  • Have you ever had someone on your crew who was seriously injured? What happened?  What lesson did you learn from that experience?
  • Think of the person on your crew who is most likely to get hurt. Think of the person on your crew who is least likely to get hurt.  What’s the difference?
  • What’s a piece of equipment or process that your crew uses, but you don’t understand very well. What’s something you could do to learn how to do that work safely?
  • Who on your crew has the biggest influence on how other people think, talk and act when it comes to safety? What’s something you can do to engage that person more?
  • Is there someone on your crew who shouldn’t be working here because the pose too much of a danger to themselves or others? What’s stopping you from removing that person?

Questions about on-boarding new workers

  • What’s your process for on-boarding a new employee? What questions do you ask them, and what key points do you make?
  • How do you ‘size-up’ new workers and figure out who can do what? What’s the ‘trick’ that new foremen need to learn?
  • How well do the people on your crew know one another? What could you do to make sure that each person knows everyone’s name and is comfortable asking for help?
  • How long before you can tell if a new person is going to cut it or not? Does your company have a ‘probationary’ or ‘try-out’ period?  Do you use that process?

Questions about enforcing rules and discipline

  • What’s the ‘keystone’ rule around here – the one rule that if we get everyone to follow it all the time, would make everything else go better?
  • What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about enforcing rules or writing people up? What’s still difficult for you?
  • Talk about a time when you didn’t enforce a rule – you let it slide – and it came back to bite you later.
  • Is there someone on your crew who you should be writing up but you’re not? What help do you need in order to be stronger with that person?

Questions about teaching and mentoring workers

  • What’s a task your crew does, but you’re not very good at it. Who could help you train your people to do that work?
  • If your kid were coming to work here, who would you want mentor them? Why?
  • When you were an apprentice, how did you like to learn new skills? Do you teach people the same way?
  • What’s a task around here that we need more people to learn how to do well? The task where we usually have to wait certain folks to be free – what would it take to get more people trained up on that?

Questions about administrative processes and paperwork

  • Think of the ‘paperwork’ you have to do in your job. Which form or process do you make sure you do right and on time, every time?  Which do you ‘pencil whip’?  What’s the difference?
  • If you were in charge of rolling out a new process – a new form or permit people had to complete, how would you do it? How would you make sure everyone did it right?
  • Is there a certain form or paper work you find difficult to complete? Who around here could help you get up to speed on that process?
  • What’s a paperwork process you could delegate to your lead hand, or someone on your crew who wants to be a foremen? Which process will you neverdelegate?

Questions about setting an example

  • Who was the best foreman you ever knew? What made them different?  What did you learn from them?
  • Who has the best start-of-shift meetings or huddles around here? What do they do differently?
  • Regarding [insert a recurring issue], what can you or I do to set an example? How could we, through our actions, show people what’s expected around here?
  • What’s the time of day when you have to be ‘on your game’ – when you have to be visible to your crew, setting the pace or mood? What do you do during these times?

Interested in learning more?  Ready to get your foremen talking (and thinking)?  We’re ready to help. 

About the author: Andy Erickson is a founder and principal consultant at Humanus Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in people-centric leadership. He can be reached at

Upgrade Your Foremen’s Meeting

We all know that when it comes to day-to-day performance, worker safety and organizational culture, no one has greater influence than front-line leaders.  And yet many organizations have crappy and infrequent meetings with these folks.

At Humanus Solutions, we work with clients to develop front-line leaders; a key component of our program is regular, dynamic and energizing meetings between management and front-line leaders.  Here are five ways to upgrade your foremen’s meeting

  1. Get clear about why. The first step to improving your foremen’s meeting is being clear about your intention – why are you taking these folks out of the field? What’s the payoff you want from this investment?  When you’re clear about why, the how and what take care of themselves.
  2. Send a message with how you run the meeting. The way we run meetings with foremen will be reflected in how they run huddles and tailgate meetings with their team.  If we want foremen to be well prepared and energetic, if we want them to engage their audience and keep people interested, if we want them to give a damn about running a good meeting… we have to do the same thing ourselves!
  3. Include relationship building. This may sound corny, but when your foremen know a little bit about each other, they’re more likely to share ideas, ask for help and pitch in for one another.  So why not take five minutes at the start of your foremen’s meeting and say, “Stand up, find someone you don’t know very well and tell them about what you do when you’re not at work.”
  4. Get them talking.. and thinking. Next time you’re tempted to make a speech about an issue, ask a question instead. Tell people to turn to their neighbor and discuss the question – and then call on individuals to share. You may still give your speech, but it’ll have a greater chance of landing, if you get people talking (and thinking) first.   See our list of questions you can ask to get folks talking and thinking about a variety of leadership topics.
  5. Expect full attendance and never cancel the meeting. You knowyour front-line leaders are vital to your success.  Demonstrate this by making your foremen’s meeting the most important item on your calendar each week / month.  Expect every one to attend – and reciprocate by never cancelling or rescheduling the meeting.

The way we engage our foremen will be reflected in the way they lead their crews. So take time to run an effective meeting with your front-line leaders:  have a clear intention, prepare well and have conversations rather than making speeches.

Interested in learning more?  Ready to develop your front-line leaders?  We’re ready to help. 

About the author: Andy Erickson is a founder and principal consultant at Humanus Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in people-centric leadership. He can be reached at

Habits and Rituals: Making Routine Behaviors Matter

The things we do most often send a powerful message about what matters to us.  “Now what?” leadership moments provide an opportunity to pause and examine the routines we follow and reconsider / redesign them.

Leadership Habits

Habits are routines – actions we take at a certain time or in response to certain conditions.  Generally, there is a reward – we feel better – as the result of the action. Here are ten habits leaders can use to engage and influence their teams.

  • Greet people by name (especially receptionists, security guards, cleaning staff, catering personnel, etc.).  Ask about family / interests away from work.
  • Acknowledge each person you pass in the hall or on the site
  • Meet someone new each day
  • Praise or recognize someone every day
  • Shake hands with each of your direct reports every day
  • “Check-in” with your boss / client / key supplier every week. Ask, “How’s it going? What’s on your mind? How can I help?”
  • Prepare a different question every day or week, and ask it during lulls in conversation or as an icebreaker at meetings.
  • Pick up trash; clean common areas; keep your own work area well-organized
  • Show up during an off-shift at least once each week.
  • Make unannounced calls or visits to the work areas to speak to individuals (on their birth day, on their service anniversary, after a promotion)
  • Carry extra glasses, gloves, earplugs, etc. with you to make it easier to have constructive conversations with folks who are not wearing the right equipment

Organizational Rituals

Rituals are group activities that happen regularly, usually in a formal or proscribed manner.  Because we do these things so often, they are often dull and perfunctory. How can you use these activities to encourage the mindset, relationships and behaviors you want to see?

  • Start / end of shift team meetings
  • Safety meetings
  • Foremen meetings
  • Leadership team meetings
  • New employee orientation
  • Post-incident / accident investigation and communication
  • Recognition Process / Events
  • Project Kickoffs
  • Manager site / factory walks
  • All Hands / Town Hall meetings

Interested in learning more?  Ready to make your routines matter?  We’re ready to help.  

About the author: Andy Erickson is a founder and principal consultant at Humanus Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in people-centric leadership. He can be reached at

Twenty Questions to Ask During “Now What?” Leadership Moments

As leaders we often face moments of doubt or uncertainty – situations that knock us off our stride and cause us to as, ‘now what!?’  These moments, while unpleasant, offer an opportunity for self-assessment and reflection.

Here are twenty questions to think about and discuss with your team the next time you face a ‘now what!?’ leadership moment.

Mindset: start by asking about the leader sitting in your chair.

  1. How am I responsible for this situation? Set aside notions of ‘fault’ and ‘blame’ – focus instead on ‘ability to respond’. How are you able-to-respond… this situation?
  2. What is possible in this situation? This isn’t about ‘predictable’ or ‘likely’ – but what could or might be accomplished.
  3. What is your commitment? Given your ability-to-respond, and the possibility you see in this moment, what are you up for? What are you willing to stand up for?

Mission: explore your motivation for taking on the work at hand.

  1. What will it mean to accomplish your goal? What will it say about you, your team or your organization; how will the world be different?
  2. Why does this matter to you, as a person? Not as a manager, or in terms of your business – but as a person… why do you care about this?
  3. Why does this matter to the people on your team? Their motivations may be quite different than yours – that’s okay.  What matters is that they care like you do.

Relationships: examine your access to / understanding of the people whose help you need.

  1. Whose support / participation / commitment do you need in order to be successful?
  2. Who has the greatest influence with the people around you? Who casts the longest shadow in terms of how people think, talk and act?
  3. How often / how much time do you spend with these people and what is the quality of your conversations?
  4. What conversations could you have with them… what questions could you ask… such that they better understood your mission and mindset, and you better understood theirs?

Habits: look at the messages you are (or aren’t) sending through your personal behavior

  1. Where do you eat lunch? Who do you eat with?  Could someone approach you if they wanted to talk?
  2. Who do you speak to informally? What do you talk about most often?
  3. How do you spend your time when you have nothing planned?
  4. What do you do each and every day / week no matter what?
  5. If someone were to observe you at work, noting where you went, what you did, who you talked to and what you said – what would the observer conclude is most important to you?

Rituals: look at the messages you are (or aren’t) sending through your group activities behavior.

  1. What was is first and last thing discussed by your teams every day?
  2. Which group activities are nevercancelled, postponed or rescheduled?
  3. Which meetings do you attend no matter what? Who talks the most / least during those meetings, and how much of the talking is conversation vs presentation?
  4. When your management team does a site tour or area walk, what do they focus on? What do they look at, notice, record, and talk about later?
  5. What triggers a celebration or recognition in your organization? What are the occasions that cause someone to say, “let’s bring in a cake tomorrow”?
  6. If someone were to sit in your weekly staff meeting or daily production review… if someone sat is on your crew’s daily tool-box talks or shift-handover meetings… if they were to observe your organization’s new employee orientation… what would they conclude is most important to your organization?

Interested in learning more?  Ready to leverage your ‘now what!?’ moment?  We’re ready to help. 

About the author: Andy Erickson is a founder and principal consultant at Humanus Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in people-centric leadership. He can be reached at

Now What!? Leveraging Moments of Doubt

Every leader, no matter how accomplished or seasoned, faces uncertainty and self-doubt.  I call these ‘now what!?’ moments.

  • After a sudden set-back or reversal
  • In the face of a new requirement for unprecedented performance
  • Following a realization that things don’t work the way you thought

At moments like these it’s tempting to look ‘away’ – outside our selves or our team – to explain the shortfall and find a solution.

  • It’s the process that needs to change
  • It’s our tools and technology that must improve
  • It’s them – that department, that group, that person – holding us back

Now what!?’ moments offer the opportunity to look within – at ourselves and how we relate to our work and our team – to find the solutions.  At Humanus Solutions, we work with clients in a variety of industries – but no matter the setting, we challenge our clients to examine five aspects of themselves and their leadership.

  1. Mindset: the capacity to lead begins with your relationship to the challenge at hand.  Powerful leaders choose a powerful attitude:  I am responsible; this is possible; I am committed.
  2. Mission: the ability to enroll others is based the sense of meaning, purpose and belonging you can offer.  The best leaders can articulate what they are up to and why it mattersto them and their team.
  3. Relationships: access to the knowledge and commitment of others is determined by your ability to understand and be understood by them. Great leaders invest in relationships with people vital to their success.
  4. Habits: credibility in the eyes of others is determined by the example you set—especially during routine, daily activities. The most effective leaders demonstrate their mindset, values and commitments in every-day activities.
  5. Rituals: sustaining the effort and attention of a team requires regular, recurring, designed conversations. Strong leaders use daily / weekly / monthly meetings, reviews, assessment and check-ins to reinforce habits, deepen relationships, focus on the mission and promote the mindset.

Marshall Goldsmith said, “What got you here won’t get you there.”  Moments of doubt and uncertainty – moments that cause us to ask ourselves, ‘now what!?’ – offer a hidden gift:  the chance to look within ourselves for the answers that lead to breakthroughs.

Interested in learning more?  Facing a ‘now what!?’ leadership moment ?  We’re ready to help. 

About the author: Andy Erickson is a founder and principal consultant at Humanus Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in people-centric leadership. He can be reached at

Twenty-one Listening Tour Questions

A ‘Listening Tour’ is a way for leaders to engage their organization in a conversation.  The members of a leadership team or committee agree on a set of questions and commit to having conversations with a certain number of people. Listening Tours are a useful replacement or supplement to employee surveys.   (See our article on Leadership Listening Tours for more information.)

Good questions are vital to a successful Listening Tour.  Here are some suggestions to help you get started.

Before the Listening Tour… questions for the team to discuss:

  1. What’s the issue we’re focusing on?
  2. What is most perplexing and frustrating about [issue]? What don’t we understand… or wish we could figure out?
  3. What’s the ‘elephant in the room’ regarding [issue]? What do people think, but don’t talk about openly?
  4. With this in mind, what are three good, open-ended questions we could ask to get people talking (and thinking) about [issue]?
  5. Who will we talk to? Who is involved in [issue]?  Who has the most to say about [issue]?  Are there folks who are often overlooked?  How can we include them?

Good Listening Tour questions:

  1. How have you been affected by [issue]?
  2. What’s most frustrating or difficult about [issue] for you?
  3. When did we get [issue] right? Tell me about a time when [issue] wasn’t an issue.
  4. Who handles [issue] really well?What do they do that makes them stand out?
  5. How does your supervisor handle [issue]?What do they do well / not well?
  6. In your opinion, why is [issue] important to management? What does management really wantwhen it comes to [issue]?
  7. What’s the thing management doesn’t getabout [issue]?
  8. What would you do about [issue] if you were in charge?
  9. What’s your role in [issue]? What do you need to change to address [issue]?
  10. Who has the biggest influence over the way people think and feel about [issue]?

After the Listening Tour… questions for the team to discuss:

  1. How did it go? How many conversations did you have?  (If you didn’t do the assignment, what got in the way? What out-prioritized doing this work?)
  2. How did people react? What did you learn from the way this went?
  3. What did people say? What stood out to you?  What themes did you notice?
  4. How do we contribute to people thinking and feeling this way?
  5. What could we change about the way we work in order to change the way people think about this issue? We’re too busy for any new or extra work… what are we already doing that we could do differently?
  6. What other questions do we have?What else do we want to learn about [issue]?

Interested in learning more?  Ready to add Listening Tours to your team’s tool kit?  We’re ready to help. 

About the author: Andy Erickson is a principal and CTO at Humanus Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in people-centric leadership. He can be reached at

Surveys stink: leadership ‘listening tours’ are a better solution

Many organizations rely on surveys to understand how employees think and feel.  But surveys rarely lead to effective action or lasting change.  Management teams get mired in analyzing the results, debating the meaning of various numbers, and arguing over what people really meant by their responses.

There’s a better way: it’s called conversation.  In a perfect world, we’d have conversations with our fellow employees every day – but many of us are stuck in meetings talking to each other.  ‘Listening tours’ are a great way for mangers to get out to the front-line lines and have meaningful conversations with a large cross-section of the team.

How to conduct a listening tour:

  • As a team, select a topic for your listening tour.  It’s useful to focus on ‘tough’ issues: the ones that resist solution, or are especially frustrating.
  • As a team, pick three or four good, open-ended questions about this issue.  The best questions will require thought and self-examination.  (See our list of ‘Twenty-one Listening Tour Questions‘ for ideas.)
  • Each team member commits to talking to five to ten people before the next team meeting.   You may want to divvy up the organization and make sure someone is talking to folks in each department or area.
  • Do it!  Set aside time in your calendar – or better, cancel a less-than-useful meeting and spend the time out in the field/shop.
  • Talk to team-members:  use your best judgment about who to talk to and when.  Make the other person feel comfortable: start with small talk; if necessary, introduce yourself; ask how the person is doing; explain that you’re looking for help and you want to hear the truth.
  • Ask the questions and then listen!  The other person might not answer right away.  It’s okay — let the silence hang.  They may give you a ‘safe’ answer. It’s okay – challenge them to give you more. Whatever they say, respond with, “Thank you… tell me more…. what else?”  Don’t worry about taking notes – just listen.
  • Rinse and repeat.  Be sure to talk to a variety of people in different locations.
  • When the team reconvenes, discuss what you heard, what surprised you and what new questions have come up. Beware the tendency to jump to solutions.  Slow down and make sure you really understand how people think / feel before getting into action.

Why this helps:

  • By asking questions, and listening, you learn what other people are thinking.
  • By having conversations with folks, you develop relationships and open up lines of communication.
  • By asking about specific topics, you raise awareness and focus attention on that issue.  Simply asking the question often leads to a change in the organization.

If you’re part of a leadership team, safety committees and employee engagement councils – any team responsible for influencing the way people think and feel – listening tours are a useful alternative or supplement to employee surveys.

Interested in learning more?  Ready to add Listening Tours to your tool kit?  We’re ready to help. 

About the author: Andy Erickson is a principal and CTO at Humanus Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in people-centric leadership. He can be reached at


Make your Safety Committee matter: six steps to business NOT as usual

Many states require companies to have a Safety Committee that meets monthly to assess safety performance, review incidents and resolve safety concerns.  Unfortunately these teams are often ineffective  — meetings are dull, perfunctory and poorly-attended; the same issues are raised month after month; while the safety manager leaves with a bushel of new action items after each meeting, little changes before the next meeting and committee members become frustrated and disillusioned.

At Humanus Solutions, we urge clients to use safety committees to foster leadership and personal responsibility, while also fulfilling a regulatory requirement. Here are six tips for turbo-charging your Safety Committee.

  • Commitment from the ‘top’: your safety committee will do exactly — and only — what company leaders expect.  If you want your committee to meet the regulatory requirement, it will… but that’s all it will do.  If you want it to change the culture, cause breakthroughs and invigorate leadership this expectation must be set by the owner!
  • Distinguish ‘technical problems’ and ‘adaptive challenges’: technical problems can be solved with a decision, an answer, a change in process or equipment; adaptive challenges require people to change the way they think, feel and act.  Worker safety is primarily an adaptive issuebut most safety committees focus on technical issues.   If you want your safety committee to make a difference, make sure they are working on bothtechnical problems and adaptive challenges.
  • Ask, “What’s the real problem here?”  One way to balance attention on technical and adaptive is to look for the “issue behind the issue”.  When a problem is brought to the safety committee, ask ,”Why is this being raised to us?  What prevented team-members from owning and resolving this issue themselves?”  So long as your employees rely on the safety committee to make safety decisions, the employees will never be responsible for safety.
  • Ask, “How are we part of this?” There’s a tendency for safety committee members to see their job as making change ‘out there’, ‘to them’, ‘on-site’.  The best safety committees recognize that safety behaviors on the job-site are a reflection of behaviors in the management trailer and home-office.  When something goes wrong, a good question for the safety committee to ask is, “How have we — each of us — contributed to the conditions that lead to this incident?”
  • Unintended consequences of safety metrics. OSHA mandates safety committees review worker safety metrics, but this often has unintended consequences.  Attention on the rate of safety incidents results in pressure to not report incidents, rather than eliminating hazards; attention on the severity of injuries drives focus on case management rather than caring for the injured person and learning from what went wrong.  If your safety committee looks at metrics, do it very briefly, view them with caution and skepticism, and frequently ask, “What are people likely to do in order to ‘game’ this number?”
  • Beware ‘action items’. Another way to balance attention on technical and adaptive work is to resist the tendency to assign action items.  Most safety committee meetings generate assignments and requests for the EHS managers.  The best committees recognize that the safety department doesn’t own safety — line-management does.    In place of traditional action items assigned to individuals, we recommend giving all team members the same homework — usually a question to ask or conversation to have with folks in the field.   See our article about ‘Listening Tours’ for more information.

It doesn’t take much to fulfill the regulatory requirement for a safety committee.  But if that’s all you set out to do, that’s all you’ll accomplish.  Making a realdifference in safety requires a safety committee willing to willing to look beyond the usual technical solutions; willing to examine their role in the behavior of others; and most of all, willing to do business-not-as usual.

Interested in learning more?  Ready to make your safety committee matter?  We’re ready to help. 

Developing Front-line Leaders: What Really Works

This month I’ve been asking construction managers about frontline leadership.  Specifically, I’ve asked about leadership development for foremen: what’s your approach, what’s working, what’s missing, what have you figured out and what are you up against.

Here are a few of my takeaways:

  • Developing leaders requires sustained attention.  Some companies organize annual off-site meetings for front-line leaders, with keynote speakers, and required reading.  But lasting change requires continuing the conversation after the event ends, applying the speaker’s key ideas and using language from the books.  This isn’t easy in companies preoccupied with rapid growth.
  • When it comes to developing foremen, no one is more important than superintendents.  If the boss doesn’t expect me to change my behavior, I’m unlikely to take on new ideas from a training session or keynote speech.  Unless a development process engages superintendents, changing the behavior of foremen is difficult.
  • And, unfortunately, most superintendents are not inclined to develop foremen.  As graduates of the sink-or-swim, learn-by-failing, school of hard knocks, they have little interest in coaching and mentoring.

I assumed my conversations about foremen and leadership would give me ideas for topics I could include in our Foremen Development Program.  I hoped to learn how to structure training and field coaching more effectively.  And I did get some good feedback on these points.

But what companies really need is help sustaining attention on leadership development.  It’s not a question of what to teach foremen, but rather, how to help managers fit coaching and mentoring into their already over-full schedule.

So what’s the answer?

If you want to improve your organization’s efforts to develop front-line leaders, here are five steps that really work.

  1. Commitment and attention from the top. Until it’s important to you, it won’t be important to the people who work for you.  If you want your organization to get better at developing leaders, the first step is to demonstrate this interest by talking about it, encouraging it, and developing leaders yourself.  Want your Construction Manager to champion mentoring?  Start mentoring that person before you ask them to mentor others.
  2. Regular, sustained conversation with superintendents. If you want to reach foremen, start by engaging the people who manage and direct the foremen on a daily basis. This can’t be a one-off! Superintendents who have never been mentored or coached will be uncomfortable mentoring and coaching others, so it’s going to take some time to convince and equip them to do this work.
  3. Focus on specific, observable behaviors or moves, rather than attributes and qualities.  This is vital.  Many managers in construction see leadership as a personal attribute – someone has it or they don’t.  Whether or not it’s true, this belief undermines efforts to develop leaders. I believe leadership is a series of moves, behaviors and habits – specific, visible actions we can teach and expect folks to take.  This is a much easier conversation to have with superintendents, too.  Rather than asking, “what qualities do we need to develop?” instead ask, “what do we need our foremen to do… and how are you going to make sure they do it?” For more on this, see our article ‘Miracle, Moves and Moments’.
  4. Piggyback on existing meetings.  If you want to spend more time with your team discussing leadership development, don’t add a new meeting. You’ve already got too many – and when time gets short, the new meetings will be the first to be cancelled. Instead, incorporate conversations about leadership development into the meetings you have every day/ week / month without fail.  If developing leaders is important, demonstrate your commitment by carving out time to talk about it alongside the rest of your business.
  5. Talk about leadership development outside of meetings. Putting something on the agenda at your staff meeting is important – but if you really want to let folks know how seriously to take this, talk to them about it over lunch.  Make leadership a theme in the conversations you have as you walk the job site.  For ideas on how to start conversations, see our piece ‘Twenty Questions to Get Folks Talking About Leadership‘.

I’ve learned at great deal from my conversations about leadership development and we’re going to upgrade our Front-line Leadership Development Program.  But you don’t need to hire a consultant like me, or a training program like the one my company offers – you have what you need to do this yourself.  If developing front-line leaders is important to you and your organization, get to work on it!  Talk about it, ask questions, spend time at meetings – the tools you use to manage the rest of your business apply here as well.  When you demonstrate your commitment and intention, your team will line up behind you.