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.

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