Leadership Development in Construction

Contractors: How’s Your Leadership Pipeline?

Having leadership-ready employees primed for promotion is crucial for construction firms—here’s how to make that happen

Plenty of obstacles can throw off work on a construction jobsite. A forklift breaks down. The drywall shipment is delayed. A key leader leaves to take a new job elsewhere.

Most construction companies would tackle those first two challenges as soon as they could—fixing the forklift or using the contingency budget to source another drywall supply.

But addressing a leadership void, especially if there’s no internal candidate to immediately replace the outgoing supervisor, might not rise to the top of the to-do list when the focus is on meeting a project deadline.

Often, that’s because a business hasn’t spent time filling its leadership pipeline—identifying employees who have the potential to be leaders and ensuring they have the tools to step up when it’s time.

“We’ve got to fix the machinery. Those are often easier decisions to make,” said Sarah Skidmore, CEO of professional training and coaching firm Skidmore Consulting. “We’ve got to get our line up and running. We’ve got to get equipment to our jobsite. We’ve got to have individuals on our jobsite working with functional materials. What if we used that same approach with our teams and our people, and say, ‘We need to invest in developing the leadership skills, the decision-making capacities, the communication, collaboration skills in our people, so that our people work better together?’”

Why leadership pipelines matter

It might be easy to draw a direct line from the money spent to fix a forklift to the immediate impact it will have on a project; once fixed, work can move forward. But for some business leaders, it’s not so easy to see the benefits of spending time and money on leadership training and succession planning. One Deloitte survey of human resources and business leaders found that 28% of respondents say they have weak or very weak leadership pipelines.

Still, there’s plenty of evidence that having a leadership pipeline matters. Research shows that promoting from within boosts employee morale and saves time and money. Employers also are less likely to hire a poor fit when they choose an internal candidate. And in an industry that’s suffering from a deep labor shortage, a leadership pipeline can lure new hires to a company and keep them on the job. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s third quarter construction index found that 55% of contractors reported a high level of difficulty finding skilled workers.

When top talent is interviewing for a job, they’re looking for leadership development opportunities, said Jessica Donahue, HR consultant and founder of Adjunct Leadership Consulting. “They are going to want to know that you have some systems or processes in place so the job they step into today isn’t the job they’re in 10 years down the road.”


At the same time, cultivating leaders is key for retention, too. “You want to recognize and develop the people you’ve already invested in, and it’s great to be able to grow your career with one company,” Donahue said.

But nurturing up-and-coming leaders in your organization requires more than just signing them up for an online training program. Here’s what to do to shore up your leadership pipeline.

Gauge needs, hunt for talent

Step one is identifying the positions you want to build a pipeline for, Donahue said. A starting place might be finding the middle management layers with roles that open up multiple times a year. “You consistently need to fill these jobs, and they have supervisory responsibility,” she said.

Once you’ve identified the roles, you need to find possible candidates. At traffic engineering firm The Traffic Group, President and CEO Wes Guckert is always on the lookout for team members who display leadership qualities. “You need to be constantly aware of the talents of your key members,” he said.

With those team members, Guckert has cultivated a collaborative culture where he’s quick to share business and financial metrics and curates a list of shared expectations, so workers have opportunities to step up, lead and propose new ideas.

“I expect them to ask questions on how they should proceed,” he said. “And often they’ll say, ‘What do you think, Wes? Should we do this?’ And I’ll say, ‘What would you do or say if I was not here?’ And that’s an open-ended question I think that business leaders need to ask: ‘Today, I’m the boss. Tomorrow, you are. What would you do?’”

Skidmore recommends opening an application for a leadership development program to find out the true interest. “Then you can see who is committed,” she said.

Help leaders become leaders

An employee may be the best carpenter on the job, but that doesn’t mean they have the talent to lead a team of carpenters. They’ll likely need to bolster their soft skills and learn how to motivate and review direct reports.

HR departments, leadership development consultants and trade organizations all can guide companies on the creation of leadership development programs. Associated General Contractors of America and National Center for Construction Education & Research are among the groups offering training for burgeoning leaders in the industry.

But a class isn’t enough. One-on-one mentorship with existing leaders also is critical. “Any time you can have a boss coaching and mentoring their people to that next level, that’s probably the most effective way to do this,” Donahue said.

Embrace failure

Along the way, those newbie leaders will fail. That’s OK, Guckert said. In fact, that’s preferable.

“We all learn by mistakes and failure,” he said. “You know that team members are becoming stronger when they fail because that means they are trying something new, trying something harder. And when they do that, you know they are ready for leadership roles in the future.” 

Redefine leadership

Not everybody wants to be the boss. Some people are happy with lateral moves or staying put, but that doesn’t mean they can’t lead in other ways. Maybe they’re the go-to expert for installing a particular component, Skidmore said. Perhaps they’ve earned every certification in a field and have created a competitive advantage for your company as clients seek experts with those specific skills.

Employers should take note of their employees’ skills and interests. “Understand your people and understand how they want to grow and how that can support the future of the business,” she said. “And, specifically and intentionally, put in place development plans where they can thrive.”

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