Take off the tool belt: The foreman as manager

THE FIELD IS where a construction contractor makes a profit. The quality of the foreman is directly linked to the level of gross profit a contractor enjoys. The field supervisor is a resource manager, taking the demands of the job and matching them with limited resources. At the end of a project, the foreman who thinks more like a manager will win. To win more often, this supervisor must psychologically

THE FIELD IS where a construction contractor makes a profit. The quality of the foreman is directly linked to the level of gross profit a contractor enjoys. The field supervisor is a resource manager, taking the demands of the job and matching them with limited resources. At the end of a project, the foreman who thinks more like a manager will win.

To win more often, this supervisor must psychologically take off his tool belt and assume the role of business owner. The business is the construction project. The average construction project in the United States is about the same as the revenue of a small business. The foreman is responsible for it as a small business owner is.

The successful foreman should form many habits. Below are 16 to consider.

1. People are fragile. Deep down inside, your workers want to be taken seriously. It is the No. 1 human need — respect. Take them seriously. As a starting point:

  • Take time with all members of your crew individually to teach and understand them.
  • Never use nicknames. People never will be offended by using their given name or a shorter version of it.
  • Paychecks should be handed out with a "thank you for your work this week."
  • Assume that people are trying to do a good job until proven differently.
  • Make sure your people have what they need or, at least, fight to get it.

2. Because things are true, doesn't mean they need to be said. If it is true and positive, certainly say it. Keep the negative comments out of your conversations. It keeps the atmosphere professional and forward thinking. You will be tempted to state an obvious shortcoming of someone. Don't, unless you are on your way to fire them. Even then, it is still a hazard.

3. Well-organized beats smart every time. Success in construction is based on a good, thoughtful process executed on every job every time. Daily organizational skill makes anyone look smart. Planning weekly, training people in small increments, knowing the contract documents, and keeping tools and material constantly in the work area are typical processes of above-average foremen. Smart, disorganized people in construction are common, and not well paid or respected.

4. The process is the problem, not the people. The number of people, the amount of products and the conflicting goals cause problems on most projects. Your team comes to work wanting to succeed. They would like a raise, be considered for promotion and go to the next "big" job. Success comes from having a thoughtful, proactive process.

5. You are buying people's energy, ideas and enthusiasm, not their time. Do the things that keep people in a positive state of mind. Being appreciative about your journeymen will encourage them to follow you. Having a sense of humor never hurt anyone's outlook. Giving a well-deserved compliment won't hurt your leadership. Being a fake, however, will come out in the wash.

6. People want to be included in the plan. People just wanted to get their instructions and go to work 30 years ago. Typical workers today want to know what to do and why they should do it. Include them in the things that are appropriate to share.

7. Talk about bad situations only once. Yes, strongly voice your disappointment behind closed doors. Make it a point of showing your displeasure. Use the opportunity to raise the performance bar. Once the door reopens and you walk out, that is the end of the verbal spanking.

8. Money doesn't buy happiness. We know this, but your people will constantly talk about their paycheck. Why? It is easily measured and hard to argue. What do they really want? To be appreciated. To go to a good job. To have a bright future. In surveys, compensation ranks at the middle of all variables concerning job satisfaction. Being included in the plans of the company along with appreciation and a bright future rank ahead of pay.

9. Don't think out loud. Do not tell people what you are considering or might do. This confuses the troops and starts rumors. When you speak, you state a direction that you have chosen and won't change your mind. Don't voice your thinking and you will keep your crew's rumors and distractions to a minimum.

10. Don't forget to tie any raise to improved performance or skill. For open shop situations, raises should be mentioned as a concept. State this in the months preceding the raise date. The smart foreman talks about ways to maximize the raise by acquiring skills or showing improvement, such as competent-person training, being independent or the ability to install so much work in a day. When raise time comes then, nothing else needs to be said. You either give them a minimal or maximum raise.

11. It is the little things that people notice. Remembering their concerns and interests tells them they work for a good person. Football coach Bill Parcells is the greatest example. He knows several things about each player and mentions them. Even when he cuts someone, the player doesn't take issue with it. He knows it is not personal. Parcells cares about them as people. Take another look at all these guidelines. Sincerity and caring win with people. Yes, even if you cut someone.

12. People work for people, not for companies. Most great contractors are great people. If you are someone in whom they believe, they will stay. The loyalty is there. As an aside, it is clear to me that most great contractors are "mud on the boots" types. The crews in the field have great respect for someone who has done their jobs. A friend of mine said it better: "You can't run a construction company by e-mail."

13. Compete with yourself, not others. Great foremen do not worry about other projects or their peers. They compete against themselves and focus on that. If it takes them an hour to do something, they try to finish it in 55 minutes. Frankly, they don't concern themselves with the Joneses.

14. Get ugly early. When you see a problem, identify it and communicate it. No one ever lost respect for having the courage to communicate a rock in the road ahead. Once all the people involved calm down, their minds will start thinking of a Plan B. Early detection always gives people more time to research and consider options. Having to make difficult decisions in an hour is a recipe for subsequent problems down the road.

15. Values = Actions = Culture. When a foreman believes in a value, it is expressed in actions. People can say anything, but what they actually do speaks their heart. If you value hard work, you don't care if the hard worker is your least popular worker, you mention it. If you value courtesies, they are not taken for granted. If someone fetches a tool or a cup of coffee, you thank him for it. If you value organized habits, you notice them and point them out to others.

True values build a culture in your team. Certainly, when raise or promotion time comes, you speak your values though actions. Conversely, if you have limited values, your people will do all manner of things. If a foreman is weak or "laid back," his team will not focus. Thus, he will not produce. Pity the foreman in an industry that only rewards safety, production, quality and cost. He may have a difficult time growing in his responsibilities.

16. Break up cliques. Allowing cliques on the jobsite does little to enhance teamwork and learning. As we move people around to work with others, we do a service for ourselves and our people. A new partner adds perspective to performing tasks in different ways. In addition, the practice gives a person an understanding of different personalities. In summary, you are giving a gift. He or she will gain a greater feel for people and personalities. It is inexpensive management training for your next foreman.

Matt Stevens is a management consultant who works only with construction contractors. He has been doing so since 1994. McGraw Hill has published his book, "Managing a Construction Firm on Just 24 Hours a Day." Go to stevensci.com to order. His firm is Stevens Construction Institute Inc. He can be reached at [email protected]