In Challenging Economic Times, Leadership Training Is an Edge
Guy Lawrence / ENR

The industry may have a workforce crisis on its hands, but the quality of its leadership is also under pressure, particularly as firms and other organizations face a challenging future. Ensuring that employees from the CEO on down can not only run a business day-to-day but also handle crises, prompt teamwork and inspire innovation takes more than management skills—it requires an effective leader.

Many great industry leaders are naturally gifted or refined their skills on the job under fire. But companies and other entities now are taking more deliberate steps to educate and groom the next generation of leaders, whether they are in boardrooms, on jobsites or still on campus.

Leadership training is not a new industry phenomenon, but with some uncertainty ahead, it has become more compelling as a needed catalyst for continued company performance and profitability. Employers now are reaching further into the workforce to identify individuals with the right personality traits to be leaders and to more formally develop their potential. And experts say it is time to start integrating such programs into college-level engineering and construction curricula.

Paul Chinowsky
“Being in business for the last 40 years won’t keep you in business 40 years from now.”




“Leadership is about aligning the interests and direction of the collective efforts required to achieve anything,” says Ralph M. Peterson, chairman and CEO of CH2M Hill Cos. for nearly 20 years. Under his watch, the firm has grown from a regional wastewater-treatment and environmental engineer into a $5-billion-a-year global powerhouse with multiple capabilities and 23,000 employees. “Management is about understanding numbers, controls and processes,” he says. “Leadership is about understanding insight, inspiration and alignment. There is a clear distinction.”


The U.S. military’s engineering and construction force has long been revered for its leadership-based culture. “When you look at what society has entrusted us to do, it is an awesome responsibility, and we need people who are values-based,” says Army Brigadier Gen. Gregg Martin, new commandant of the Army Maneuver Support Center at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, and soon to be elevated to major general. “Very early on, an Army officer is trained to be a master synchronizer, an orchestra conductor.”

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  • Civilian organizations are getting the message as well. MIT’s Gordon Engineering Leadership program, founded last year with a $20-million private grant to boost product, project and practice innovation, recently named as its new executive director Leo R. McGonagle, a retiring Corps of Engineers general and former West Point instructor in tactical leadership.

    Messer Construction, Cincinnati, is a strong leadership-training advocate with a formal development program open to all employees. “Leadership is the foundation of our business plan. A company’s growth is directly related to individual people at all levels making better decisions,” says CEO Pete Strange, the program’s driving force. “It is the quicksilver that differentiates.”

    The firm’s program centers on six leadership competencies tied to behavior: performance, drive, vision, ownership, character and interpersonal skills. “There are many definitions of leadership, but those six traits are how we define it,” says Bill Krausen, a civil engineer and former chief estimator who is now vice president of professional development.

    Messer uses various formal assessment tools to determine personality basics, but the biggest emphasis is on the “360 review”—feedback from colleagues, subordinates and managers. The program also emphasizes simplicity over hard metrics. “Nothing beats good, honest feedback,” Krausen says, although he emphasizes the firm’s leadership skills directly tie to profits and client retention.

    Using the Messer experience as a template, the Associated General Contractors on Oct. 1 announced a significant expansion of its existing nationwide leadership development program for its chapters and members. Krausen is a longtime member of AGC’s education committee.

    More firms are raising the profile of leadership training internally and to the outside world. Omaha-based architect-engineer LEO A DALY in June announced a new leadership institute for its 1,100 staffers that will be a “competitive program intended to prepare talented employees for leadership roles,” the firm says.

    The ‘Magic Deck’

    This deck of cards, a tool developed by consultant and former university construction management professor Bill Badger, helps project managers identify leadership styles, based on 10 cards they select. The four suits signify different personality strengths and weaknesses that can affect project outcomes.

    Irving, Texas-based Fluor Corp., long a leadership-training proponent, is adapting its program to new technologies and talent needs, says Jennifer Large, the firm’s newly hired executive director of challenge development. She is also set to become dean of its new leadership school by early next year. The firm is particularly targeting midlevel managers who are often too busy with current tasks to focus on their own development.

    The firm is also integrating more leadership skill-building into its “executive business-review” training, which includes a proprietary board game simulating business and project challenges. “It is a continual learning process for people early in their careers to understand leadership,” says Large. “It’s harder to pin down and a less concrete concept than management.”

    Fluor and other companies are also boosting links with outside experts and the industry’s academic community to develop and hone more effective ways to teach leadership and identify its component characteristics, particularly for technically trained staff whose traditional education has left little room for it.

    Bill Badger, retired dean of construction management at Arizona State University, Tempe, and a much-respected academic, now has a new career as...