The Making of a Leader: Construction Superintendent

Developing future superintendents must include understanding the mental, emotional and psychological aspects of the role

Is there not a more visible sign in all of construction than the superintendent? This one position, maybe more than any other in construction, could easily be the “poster child” of field leadership, mental toughness and rugged charisma.
Many construction owners will tell you that when a project has been awarded or a bid won, the first act toward building a successful project is by selecting the right superintendent. “Choose the right superintendent,” they’ll say, “and the rest will fall into place.” It’s like: “Start with a Michael Jordan-like player and build the team around him.”
Customers will often confess that their building project was successful because of the superintendent on the job. And if they should ever build again, “We’ll want the same superintendent on the next project!”
If the presence and role of the construction superintendent is so critical to a successful project, why are they so hard to acquire, keep and grow? More important, what will contractors need to do to ensure that they have the right superintendents in place going forward? Let’s move to answering these questions, and more, as we look at the making of the construction superintendent.
First, one of the reasons many construction companies are finding it hard to acquire and keep good superintendents is because we’re facing a real turnover of some of our older field leaders. There are simply fewer construction superintendents around. As an industry we are facing a real shortage of good field leaders, and the superintendents who have been so effective over the past 20 to 30 years are easing into retirement like so many other professionals.
With a growing shortage of seasoned superintendents available the industry should be preparing for a real “bounty” on those superintendents who are still around. The wages for a good superintendent will continue to escalate, especially as the construction industry slowly but surely rebounds and expands again.
So the real issue we want to address is, “How do we make, or grow, an effective superintendent?” Consider the following steps.
Step 1: Review the entire superintendent profile
There is more to being an effective superintendent than merely technical knowledge (and that’s HUGE). Developing future superintendents must include understanding the mental, emotional and psychological aspects of the role.
Mentally, superintendents must be upbeat, alert and focused more than ever. Emotionally, superintendents must be in control, not easily caught off guard, and not prone to negative, caustic and offensive responses. And psychologically, superintendents must be adept at understanding personality differences, building teamwork among potentially divisive and diverse project members, and be comfortable “in their own skin.”
We must have superintendents who know the job specs, codes and construction processes, but we must also have superintendents who are better equipped to handle the people and politically correct requirements that might not have been required in years past.
Step 2: Engage candidates with pre-superintendent opportunities
Traditionally, this has been accomplished by positioning a foreman as an “Assistant Superintendent.” This remains a great training process IF the more senior superintendent is indeed coaching, teaching and mentoring his “apprentice.”
Such OTJ (On-the-Job) training is very effective and sorely missing today from many organizations. However, many construction projects today simply cannot carry the overhead burden to pay for the development of their future field leaders. This is a HUGE price for our industry, one that must force us to find other avenues to provide such development.
A few alternative “pre-superintendent” opportunities might include:
  • Sending potential superintendents to industry-focused classes, conferences and “boot camps” that instruct on leadership, team building, strategic thinking, human relations, etc.
  • Creating your own superintendent “academy” that includes weekly or monthly classes led by existing superintendents on critical project topics.
  • Rehire retired superintendents as consultants to serve as coaches for up-and-coming superintendents.
  • Provide access and funding for candidates to finish professional certifications or degrees that further their knowledge…and confidence. (i.e. LEED, etc.)
  • Encourage a more formal and aggressive mentoring process between your senior superintendents and your candidates.
  • Place candidates into non-critical superintendent functions whenever possible to gain experience.
  • Look at possible “leasing out” of candidates to other construction companies, similar to your own firm, who may need an assistant on a project. This might be done with contractors in other geographical markets who you know and trust.
You might not be able to implement all of the pre-superintendent opportunities listed but you need to be active in finding some early exposure. Such an effort can certainly confirm any early positive thoughts about individuals and their superintendent potential or make clearer the amount of work still yet to be done.
Step 3: Assign a Champion to the new superintendent
The Champion should be either a current and more senior superintendent in your organization or a recently retired superintendent. In either case, the Champion should be trained to mentor the new superintendent, including:
  • How to coach, instruct and LISTEN
  • How often to check-up on the new superintendent
  • Observe meetings that the new superintendent is leading
  • Sharing “best practices” from their own personal experience
  • Developing an organized approach on important topics to educate and train
The Champion (like a mentor) is not a new approach, but it can be challenging for a superintendent to embrace especially if he already has his own project to lead. Therefore, the appropriate accommodations must be realistically allowed if an existing and busy senior superintendent will be a Champion.
Step 4. Maintain a formal learning focus for the new superintendent
It is all too common to let the “foot off the pedal” when a new superintendent is placed on their first project. “She will be busy enough just getting her arms around her first new job” is an easy thing to say and practice. DON’T DO IT!
While any new project, especially for the new superintendent, will require extra studying, this same energy can include maintaining the same focus on the bigger plan…to be the best all-around Superintendent possible. So keep the new superintendent taking a class on leadership or attending a “green” focused conference.
One mistake many construction companies make with their leaders is to ease them back off of continuous learning opportunities. This slowly makes lazy thinkers and learners. A better approach is to maintain a never-ending process of learning opportunities, perhaps slowed down periodically for high critical issues, but continuous nonetheless.
Step 5. Create a weekly, monthly and quarterly update
It is important that new superintendents recognize the importance of learning and growing. Such an effort is further encouraged by having superintendents submit a formal (i.e. written) update to their mentor or senior leader reflecting their most recent learning experiences. This is quite effective for the new superintendent, especially during their first year in his new role or for his entire first project. It might be broken down as follows.
Weekly “Hi-Lo” Report
This first effort might go along the lines of what I call a “Hi-Lo” Report. The “Hi-Lo” requires a superintendent to identify three to five “highlights,” or positive learning moments, which took place over the past week and three to five “lowlights,” or negative learning moments. The key here is to have the superintendent only “bullet point” out his comments, not provide a long defense or reason behind any one point.
The weekly “Hi-Lo” should be submitted each Friday afternoon and sent to their general superintendent or senior leader for review. The senior person MUST be faithful to review and respond to the superintendent no later than the following Monday!
Monthly Progress Report (MPR)
At the end of each month the new superintendent should submit a “white paper” on what improvements they believe they have made over the past 30 days. The “white paper” is meant to be only one page in length. It might include what the superintendent has learned, what he is improving on and what he still needs to improve in his development process.
Like the Hi-Lo, the superintendent’s senior leader must review the MPR. Ideally there should be some form of feedback that includes a personal discussion between the senior leader and the new superintendent.
Quarterly Scoreboard
The Quarterly Scoreboard requires the new superintendent to establish three to five areas of improvement and then measure progress made for the quarter in those areas. Based on setting goals, the new superintendent works with his or her senior leader and sets new goals for each quarter that will stretch his or her growth. Consider a few sample goals that might be part of a new superintendent’s Quarterly Scoreboard:
  • Conduct weekly staff, foremen and project team meeting with written agenda.
  • Provide brief overview to weekly labor costs.
  • Address two or three production problems with formal problem solving analysis including: cause and effect identification, root cause analysis, solution determination, corrective action plan
The goals, with measurements, can involve issues involving people, process, technical, sub-trade contractor, material, client relations, etc. The key is that the new superintendent has some clear objectives going into each new quarter. As each quarter ends a sit down review with the senior leader includes both review of the past 90 days and a setting of new goals, with measurements, for the next quarter.
All of the five efforts discussed thus far will be critical to your new superintendent’s development. One effort will obviously have more impact on some superintendents than other efforts. The key here, of course, is to provide clarity on what you want and need in your superintendents and consistency in the entire process to support, mold and inspire successful growth.
One additional thought about the development efforts: the trend that many construction companies are experiencing is that there appears to be an increase in more superintendents coming from the construction management or project management ranks than from the traditional carpenter, lead-man and foreman background.
Often, a college graduate in some area of construction science joins a construction company. He might even initially think he wants to follow the route to become a project manager only to get a real taste of field life…and love it! Such new superintendents might have a college background and possess more “professional skills” and less field skills of superintendents past.
Now, in our final look at the making of a construction superintendent, let me briefly address a few topics of growth that should be included somewhere in your development efforts.
Depending on the background of your new superintendent, you will want to be sure to provide as much construction-based learning as possible. However, I would recommend the following topics for further development of your superintendents. They’ll need each skill, trust me!
Topics for superintendent development
  • Facilitation skills — Superintendents will be required to lead more formal meetings than ever.
  • Conflict resolution — Superintendents must have more options than “shut up” or “just settle it.” We have greater diversity of culture, expectations, work styles, etc.; and the construction superintendent will need to be professionally proactive in resolving conflict.
  • Team building — Actually, many superintendents have excelled at molding a team from among their project members, but this need will only continue to be a high requirement.
  • Client relations — No longer are only business development, estimators or project managers the primary conduit to clients. Superintendents might be the key to strong and stronger client relations.
  • Social networking — Tough old superintendents might not have appreciated the need to stay connected with others through today’s “smart” communication options, but you can bet that future superintendents WILL need to be proficient at this new technical requirement.
  • Quality/problem solving — Superintendents can no longer afford to “shoot from the hip” when solving construction challenges. Greater knowledge of what really constitutes quality, how to measure it, and how to use problem-solving tools can take any projects to greater profits and performance!
  • Construction technology — This broad development area can include such areas as BIM, smart phones, handheld “tablets,” the ever developing formwork options, improved laser technology, and every specialty of construction’s many contributing sub-trade technology!
As you can surmise, the opportunity to make a construction superintendent might require a bit more effort than in past years. There have been some in our industry who have predicted that at some future point the superintendent and project management roles might actually be found in one role. For many contractors, this is already a reality.
There is little doubt, however, that the role of a construction superintendent is not the same role that it once was…it is never ending in its continued evolution.
Don’t wait … start today making your future construction superintendents what you will need them to be!