I'd like to share with you some lessons learned from a long career in the construction business based on conversations with some of the best people I have ever met.


Why my focus on leadership and why one must be great?

It all started for me when I joined my local volunteer fire company. Nothing is harder than leading volunteers and that’s where I gathered my experience.

I now work as a construction safety professional. This provides some great opportunities to learn and listen from those directing our construction work. Among the ranks are some great leaders with several characteristics that make them successful. I work for one and have listened to scores of others.

Lesson #1: People do not leave jobs—they leave leaders.

Foremen ... Superintendent ... Project Manager ... Boss ... Team Lead. These critical roles are often taken for granted. No matter your title, leadership comes with the role and anything less is failure. Some of those who lead should not, and, in a weak organization, those who should may never step up.

If there was a checklist of things to ask yourself or remember as you prepare to be a leader, it would look like this:

Are you ready to lead? If you are unprepared, you will kill the spirit of those you are leading.

Are you prepared to do the same work and wear the same gear your crews do? If you walk the job with spotless Chinos and unscuffed Doc Martens while scanning your IPhone don’t expect much of those underneath you—or much of their respect.

Can you choose to help someone understand what you are saying rather than just telling them what to do? There is a big difference.

Are you willing to say “thanks” often for any help, no matter how inconsequential or infrequent, from everyone who works for you? You must target being better trained than the most experienced in your crew. Competency breeds confidence and trust in those you will lead.

If some in your crew know a bit more than you, can you listen?
Can you ask for help? You will need advice and you must be willing to ask those who have been around for decades. You are not the first leader they've had.

Lesson #2: To be the leader, act like one.

When workforces are thin, leadership positions must to be filled by those not ready. This might be unavoidable, but if recognized and understood, great leaders can be created. There is still the risk, however, that a leader possessing some level of authority can create some lasting damage if not helped along.

In my first run as a very young president of my fire service company, it took a more experienced veteran to make me realize that banging the gavel with a beer in my hand was not the best leadership image I could project.

Remember you are no longer "one of the guys."

Stay above the conversations in the break area. What you might say has more bearing than you think. This is one of the most common errors in leadership. Until you recognize the need to step away somewhat from your former peers, you will fail as their leader.

Whether you’re a foreman or superintendent walking the job—or an engineering manager in the office—everyone else is looking in your direction. You are directly responsible for their safety and success.

So take the lead and stay with them. Make sure everyone understands their job and your expectations.

If you need to leave the jobsite or work area, tag someone to keep the team together until you return. He or she might be your next leader. When you return and see things went smoothly, please tell him or her.

Help create a career-minded employee —not just a worker.
Knowing and caring for individuals provides the trust you will need to be their leader for decades. If you don’t care, neither will they.

Lesson #3: Learn how to motivate
You are not as important as you think, and no more important than the newest member of your crew.

Motivation is everything; compliance by discipline will always fail.

We all yearn for the recognition of a good job—starting with our mothers putting our horrid “art” projects on the refrigerator. As we grow, praise becomes critical to our motivation. We want to hear we did well. That is comforting and that is necessary.

People love to see their names tied to an accomplishment no matter how small. If that motivates them, they will take more training and set their standards higher ... and you get the idea.

NEVER shout at someone who is not doing what you had hoped—except in an emergency—or you will damage a good person, often in front of his or her peers and never be able to unring that bell.

Take them aside when you can and say “Hey….not sure what happened back there but….”
Avoid blame (some of it is likely yours) and take the time to teach. You are a leader and the teacher.

If you are a leader and someone steps up and asks "What’s involved to be a foreman?” then you have done your job.

And thanks for that.

Thomas J. "T.J." Lyons is a safety manager with Gilbane Federal, the international construction unit of Gilbane Building Co. He can be reached at tlyons@gilbaneco.com.

Whether you're an executive, project manager or job superintendent, there is no more important task right now than attracting good people who will remain in your organization. Someone once said “don’t forget to make the good, gooder."