Management as a Superintendent: How to Lead the Job Site in a New Way

March 13th, 2020 - By

As a superintendent for Nabholz, I am consistently trying to create a positive work culture for our clients, team members, and subcontractors through thoughtful management. In a way, I’m paying it forward. I have been blessed with many great mentors throughout my life. They’ve helped me realize aspirations, set goals, and create a personal value system. Above all, they hold me accountable to living with integrity. Undoubtedly, their help has shaped my competence and my character.

Now, as a superintendent on the jobsite, I communicate with a lot of younger craftworkers. The construction site can be intimidating and for good reason. There are a lot of moving parts, dangerous machinery, and hazards everywhere. I’ve learned some valuable management lessons in my time as a superintendent, project engineer, foreman, and laborer that I put to work daily.

1. Building Relationships

First, invest time in building relationships. The official definition of a manager does not mention the word “relationship.” Yet, without positive relationships, we can’t effectively manage. At their core, relationships are two-way streets. As I’m running a project, although the leader, I still make myself relatable to those working on the project. This inevitably opens the door to better communication, trust, and guidance.

Dustin with his crew in front of a newly finished project.

One unique relationship on the jobsite is between the project engineer and the superintendent, especially when there is a discrepancy in experience levels. At Nabholz, project engineers are typically newer hires. They are usually in training to become a project manager or assistant superintendent. When they are on-site with a seasoned superintendent, things can go one of three ways. The project engineer is intimidated by the super and doesn’t want to ask for help, or the super makes it clear he has no desire to teach the new PE, or both the PE and super can accept guidance and constructive criticism from one another.

When I am on a project with a new PE, I focus on getting to know them. Through our initial interactions, I first identify their strengths and what motivates them. Throughout the project, I can then provide them with opportunities to succeed in those areas of strength. This builds up their confidence and helps build trust in our relationship.

Then, it’s time to work on the areas where they need to improve. By creating a safe learning culture, I’ve created a space where the PE can learn through mistakes and see their limitations, as well as recognize their ability to learn new skills. I’ve proved I will not belittle or yell at them, and in turn, they hear my advice as constructive criticism.

2. Use Your Management Style to Build a Learning Environment that Feels Safe

“Vulnerability” could be a four-letter word in our industry, but I think it is the most crucial ingredient in creating an effective learning environment. I can’t expect anyone to be vulnerable if I’m not, though, so I try my hardest to lead by example in this area. If someone asks me a question and I don’t know the answer, I tell them I don’t know, but I will find the answer. If I make a mistake, I own it humbly. If someone points out a mistake I’ve made, I thank them.

Recently during a subcontractor meeting, a sub pointed out that I had incorrectly sequenced the schedule in front of everyone at the meeting. Instead of being embarrassed or defensive, I owned the mistake and acknowledged I was wrong. My attitude showed the subs I was open to feedback, and they stepped up to help fix my error.

The worst thing I can do as a leader is to intimidate those under my management to a point where they won’t tell me when they’ve made a mistake. Even if I don’t intimidate them, I hear immediate alarm bells when someone on my team says “yes” to everything. I want someone to ask questions. If I know a team member will ask questions, I can delegate to them. I won’t have to micromanage their work. If I know they’ll admit to not knowing; I can teach them skills and earn their trust.

3. The Old Way of Management Doesn’t Work

The yelling days are over. They are gone. The gruff superintendents of the past that ran jobsites like the wild west would not be effective in the modern construction industry. On a previous job in rural Kansas, I had a foreman framer on-site that was going through some tough life stuff, and his mood would not only affect his work but because he was the lead, it changed his whole crew’s work behavior.

With no other foreman available in the area able to complete the job, I needed to figure out how to motivate this worker. What worked was scheduling a time weekly to sit and talk about life with him. He needed to talk-out personal issues to then be able to focus on professional ones. Being his confidant and counselor definitely fell under “other duties as assigned,” but when I made this investment in him, his work improved. It was my job to finish this project for our client. Counseling this lead framer was just another thing I needed to do to accomplish my ultimate objective – handing over a quality building. But on a personal level, it was also worthwhile to me to spend time encouraging this foreman to better himself. Some rewards from this job really have nothing to do with bricks and mortar.

Dustin with an Excellence in Construction award on stage with wife Marie.
4. It’s Hard to Hear Hard Things

Never lose sight of this: it’s hard to hear hard things. It’s not uncommon for me to tell people to re-do something or that it’s not good enough – that’s my JOB!
Those you manage should always know your “why” or your motive behind the directives you give them. When a solid, trusting relationship exists, constructive criticism is easier to hear. With the foundation of a trusting relationship, it’s possible to receive feedback with a productive mindset. It’s no longer a personal attack, but a positive correction. I too, have had colleagues point things out to me, and I have adjusted accordingly. The philosophy of “we are in this together” matters.

5. Develop Your Own Skills First

Lastly, develop your own skills. This quote from Abraham Lincoln sums up my best advice for those hoping to become managers — “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Build YOUR character and craft first. Dedicate time to bettering yourself, so you have the skills to make a difference in someone else’s. Be confident in who you are so you can effectively lead others.

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