“What Makes a Great Manager” – Cover Story- Engineering News Record 12/2/02


You know good managers when you see or hear them and you usually can spot stinkers in a second. Being a good manager has little to do with job title, education or profession and has more to do with how people interact to accomplish their mission, be it managing a company, project or team. Many companies and organizations in construction think they know what it takes to become a good manager and leader. It is all about people, they say.

“Construction is a people business. In this business, you are hired for your technical skills, fired for your lack of people skills and promoted for your management skills,” says Bill Badger, professor and director of the Del E. Webb School of Construction at Arizona State University in Tempe. He and others draw the distinction between being a manager and a leader. “Management is the hard skills–planning, directing, organizing and keeping score,” says Badger. “Leadership is the soft skills–vision, working together, motivation, building trust among the players, ethics.”

CURIOUS Johnson thinks that leaders need to know how things work. So what makes a good manager-leader? There are as many opinions as there are management guides in the business section of your local bookstore. “There is not just one type. It depends on the particular circumstances of the firm,” says Mark Zweig, president of ZweigWhite Associates, a Natick, Mass.-based management consultant specializing in design firms. “A lot of firms get in trouble by looking for people with one set of characteristics,” he says.

But many say there are a few traits that all good managers seem to have. “One is good self-esteem,” says Ron Phillips, executive vice president of PAS Inc., a Saline, Mich.-based management consulting firm specializing in construction. “These are people who believe their project will be a success and will work to make it so without a lot of fear of failure.” Another major trait is a high degree of respect for the people around them. “People say ‘Give me someone I can trust and who cares about me and I will follow them anywhere,'” Phillips says.

“It comes down to soft skills,” says Frederick C. Hornberger Jr., president of Hornberger Management Co., a Wilmington, Del.-based construction executive search firm. “Once you get to the executive level, it is assumed that you have the technical skills to do the job. But to be a successful manager, you need to develop leadership, communication and emotional intelligence–the ability to be in tune with your people and the understanding of what motivates them,” he says.

The best leaders “don’t just sit in an office,” says O ‘Sullivan There also are some negative character traits to be avoided. “Some of the factors include wanting to take credit for everything, which is going to alienate everyone; refusing to use modern communication techniques; having a bad work ethic and petty dishonesty,” says Zweig.

MACTEC Inc., an Atlanta-based environmental firm, holds a comprehensive leadership program off-campus twice a year taught by a key company leader. “We talk about what is not leadership,” says Chairman Bruce Coles. “We tend to waste time and effort and money when people are not told what we don’t want.” According to Coles, those items include just giving orders, picking the right people and getting out of their way, playing politics, never making a mistake, making all of the decisions and blaming the boss for your actions. On the positive side, leaders are smart, innovative, open-minded, sensitive, consistent, efficient, straightforward, dedicated, driven, instinctive, committed and passionate, have a vision and communicate effectively and honestly, Coles says. “What’s the most important? Speed and guts,” he says. “It is the biggest failing I see in senior leadership.”

When you start talking about the characteristics that make a good manager, you come up with a list of “motherhood things” that would seem to be obvious. But the thing that separates great managers from ordinary is “perception,” says Ted C. Kennedy, chairman of BE&K Inc., a Birmingham, Ala.-based engineering and construction company. Perception is the ability to understand “what turns employees on or off” and being able to anticipate what clients need before they ask for it directly. “Good managers are always out there thinking and looking,” Kennedy says.

“Good judgement is a key skill,” says Ron Oakley, group executive of government services at Fluor Corp., Aliso Viejo, Calif. “Usually, the ones with the spark have [it]. They know when to ask for help, but they also can connect the dots to make a decision and make more right ones than wrong ones.” Once Fluor identifies up-and-coming leaders, it gives them experience in various parts of the company, challenging assignments to test them, a mentor and management and public speaking courses. “Good leaders have a broad perspective,” says Oakley. “We make sure that they are getting challenged and that they know the skill sets, which helps them develop as better project managers, salesmen or engineers.”

A strong sense of “curiosity” drives good managers and leaders, says John Johnston, who has led construction of the $1.1-billion Hudson-Bergen light-rail system in northern New Jersey as president of 21st Century Rail Corp., its design-build-operate company. “You need to know what makes things tick,” says the executive, who is retiring after 35 years in construction. “If it’s just considered a paper task, you will never get good leadership.” Johnston, who emigrated to the U.S. from England in 1967, says good construction leaders have to go beyond trained skills and not be afraid to try new approaches or make controversial decisions. “Anyone in the hard-money business has to think outside of the box,” he says. “If you have to stop and get direction all the time, you’re really managing by committee. I’ve never heard the word ‘don’t.'”

“It is rare to find a good manager and a good leader” in one person, says Alfred B. Neffgin, president of J.A. Jones Inc., Charlotte. “Managers can work a process and do a task, but a good leader also has the support of the people and their loyalty.” The firm has a one-year leadership program to which it sends about 30 senior managers from Jones’ subsidiaries who are selected by division leaders. It also has a six-month program called the Practice of Stewardship, which is attended by all 80 officers in the company. “I think that leadership can be developed in anyone if the desire is there,” he says.

TDIndustries, a Dallas-based mechanical contractor, has one of the industry’s most intensive leadership programs. For over 30 years, the firm has advocated and executed the Servant as Leader philosophy developed by management consultant Robert Greenleaf. All “partners” at employee-owned TDI go through the five-year program. “To be a leader, you need to be a servant-leader and get business results,” says TDI Managing Director Ben Houston. “Part of being a servant-leader is getting people to improve.” The formal program emphasizes quality, team building, diversity, communications and goal setting. “An element you can’t leave out is trust, and the only way we get it is to be trustworthy among ourselves,” says Houston. “You have to learn to listen, be in the other guy’s shoes and build people, not use people.”

The mission is so serious at TDI that, “if you just get business results without the servant relationship, you can’t stay here,” Houston says. The firm is consistently rated among the best companies to work for in the U.S. by Fortune magazine.

Noel Watson, CEO of Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., takes some management cues from Lou Gerstner, the former chief of IBM Corp., who took over that firm in 1993 at a particularly low point and engineered a turnaround. “When you look at a people business like ours, leaders have to balance the demands of shareholders, clients and people,” says Watson. “We believe that these are equal in importance. Every decision we make at Jacobs looks at all three of these. Managers have to find the sweet spot for all three.”

The best leaders “don’t just sit in the office, they put a finger on the pulse of the organization and get a real sense of what is going on in their organization,” says Terence M. O’Sullivan, general president of the 818,000-member laborers’ union since 2000. He claims that it is critical for leaders to have a vision, passion, aggressive determination and a real sense of where they want to take their organization. He also noted that a union or a company can’t succeed because of one leader. “Everyone has to be a leader, but someone has to put a plan of action in place.” Persuasion also helps. “You can be passionate or visionary, but if you can’t convince others, it is hard to move forward,” says O’Sullivan.

That kind of goal setting is very important in the eyes of Douglas J. McCarron, general president of the 540,000-member carpenters’ union, which withdrew from the AFL-CIO in 2000 largely over the issue. A leader has to be “very disciplined to achieve [a] goal,” he says . McCarron says he “sees no concrete goals” in many parts of the labor movement.

Gaining the respect of employees has been critical to the success of Theresa Kern, president of MA Steel Erectors, Worth, Ill. “They have to know you won’t hang the staff out to dry,” she says. “In 22 years at MA Steel, we haven’t bounced a payroll and that happens a lot with small firms. I don’t make promises on work prospects, I don’t promise what we don’t have.”

More difficult economic times raise new challenges for leaders. Tougher economic times “challenge the status quo” and require manager-leaders to truly understand their organizations and how flexible they can be, says Jeff Levy, president of EMCOR Group Inc., Norwalk, Conn. Levy contends that the biggest challenges bring out the best in leader-managers. “If you have to fire someone 30 years older than you, no one can teach you how to do it,” he says. “You have to do it your way.”

“When times are uncertain, people are afraid of the unknown,” says Robert Prieto, chairman of Parsons Brinckerhoff, New York City. “A leader has to project that he or she knows what a successful future looks like.” In recent years, PB has shined up its rising stars with its Professional Growth Network. “When you empower, people excel,” says Prieto.

Empowerment also is the touchstone for Michael Markham, president of Phoenix-based Markham Contracting, a $47-million-a-year paving and utility contractor. “Real leaders teach people how to make the right decisions so they don’t have to do it,” says Markham. “I see a real problem in the industry when some people try to do everything themselves. A good leader is as much a teacher as a director.”

Good management and leadership can be the key to the success of a construction firm. But bad management can be devastating. For example, the top reason for executive turnover among contractors is a bad relationship with an immediate supervisor, according to a survey of contractor turnover by Hornberger Management Co. In a tough employment market like today’s, construction executives are more likely to leave because of “push” factors, such as bad internal management practices, than “pull factors,” such as being attracted to other companies by enticing offers, says Frederick Hornberger.

“It’s not surprising that the top reason for turnover among contractors is not getting along with the boss,” says PAS’ Phillips. He says most contractors are closely held and the emphasis is on entrepreneurship, not management skills.

Fear of turnover is compounding some management problems. “Because this is a highly technical industry, there is a tendency to value technical skills,” says Hornberger. “So many firms, to keep good technical people, tend to promote them to management levels where the job requirements are more people-oriented than on their old jobs.” This can lead to problems where these people bring rigid, narrow-minded attitudes that may be valued on the technical side to their dealings with subordinates, he says.

Most executives do not have any training in how to manage people. “Only about 18% of executives in our contractor survey have had any formal management training,” says Hornberger. The situation is a little better among design firms. “Our survey shows that 16% of design principals have a graduate business degree, 7% have an undergraduate business degree and another 14% have taken undergraduate business courses,” says Zweig.

Management training is no guarantee of success. But most believe that training can go a long way to make a good manager. “Good training programs have shown that management and leadership skills can actually be taught,” says Hornberger.

The key is to concentrate on two important aspects of leadership–purpose and competency, says Ralph Peterson, CEO of CH2M Hill Cos., Denver. “The bottom line is that every person in the industry has tremendous potential just waiting to be developed,” he adds. “I have found that real leadership is about others and not about the individual.”