The Right Stuff

HENMANSuccessful construction leaders need to make tough calls.   

By Dr. Linda Henman

Most people agree about what it takes to move up the ladder in an average construction company: hard work, loyalty, technical knowledge and people skills.  These form the foundation for success and explain why some people receive promotions and others don’t. But then both the game and rules change.

As people approach the higher echelons of a construction company, the technical expertise that others valued so highly starts to take a backseat to something else — something even decision-makers can’t quite put their fingers on: advanced critical thinking skills. 

My work with hundreds of leaders suggests that by the time you retire, you will have the same critical thinking abilities you brought with you on your first day. Education and experience can polish them up, provide some new and useful information, and bring previously unused talent to the fore, but nothing can create what isn’t there. People cannot soar beyond their cognitive capabilities. Many with fervent hope, however, fail to grasp this reality. Decision makers often believe coaching, mentoring and experience will turn each of their technical experts into star performers, but the very traits and talents that explain success at the beginning of a person’s career won’t explain success later.

What It Takes

What does it take to be promoted in a construction company? The simple answer is “better decision-making,” the ability to make the tough calls, especially about the future. These tough calls demand sound judgment, experience, a moral gyroscope and fortitude. Only those who possess these traits can ensure aspirations are not guillotined by limitations. But how can you recognize those who can and will engage in and excel at making these calls? When making a hiring or promotion decision, based on the individual’s proven record of success, ask yourself the following:  

• Does this person understand how to separate strategy from tactics, the “what” from the “how?” Can he or she keep the strategy clearly in focus while executing only those tactics that are relevant?

• Can this person keep a global perspective? Or does she or he become mired in the details and tactics? “Analysis paralysis” has caused more than one otherwise top performer to allow opportunity to slip away.

• Do obstacles stop this person? Or do they represent challenges, not threats? The ability to bounce back from setbacks and disappointments frequently separates the strong strategist from the effective tactician.

• Can he or she create order during chaos? Top strategists don’t manufacture catastrophes. Instead, they keep problems in perspective and realize very few things are truly as dire as they first seem.

• Does this person have the ability to recognize patterns, make logical connections, resolve contradictions and anticipate the consequences?

• What success has this person had with multi-tasking? Often the ability to handle a number of things at once implies good prioritizing and flexibility. 

• Can this person think on his/her feet? Or does this person miss opportunities because of an inability to respond? Quickness does not guarantee effective critical thinking skills, however. Some people rush to make mistakes; others take their time and then err. Look at the overall track record. What caliber of decisions prevails? And how much time did the person take in making the good ones, because, after all, there is some merit in having the ability to make effective decisions fast. 

• Can this person prioritize seemingly conflicting goals? Is this person able to zero in on the critical few and put aside the trivial many when allocating time and resources?

• When facing a complicated or unfamiliar problem, can this individual get to the core of the issue and immediately begin to formulate possible solutions? Or is he or she distracted by inconsequential factors or ones that are immaterial to your mission and vision?

• Is this person future oriented and able to paint credible pictures of possibilities and likelihoods? Can he/she interpret past experiences from new vantage points? Creativity and analytical reasoning don’t always go hand in hand, but when they do, a top strategist is often at the controls. However, often strong strategic thinkers are concrete and practical, but agile.  The key question remains, “Can this person solve complicated, unfamiliar problems?”

• How do unexpected and unpleasant changes affect this person’s performance? If their analytical reasoning is well-honed and organized, systematic decision makers can respond favorably to change, even if they don’t like to.

• When in positions of leadership, does this person serve as a source of advice and wisdom? Can she or he act as an effective sounding board to others who struggle with complex issues?

The core competencies that drive a particular construction company may differ, but the ability to think analytically and dispassionately remains constant. The overarching question is this: “When acting in a strategic role, has this person typically performed as needed?” If the answer is “yes,” the person probably has the innate talent to be a strategic thinker and will just need to improve requisite skills to support the talent.  

If the answer is “no,” don’t gamble by putting this person in a more demanding position. Virtually all organizations need more strong critical thinkers who can learn from mistakes and make bold decisions. When you attract, develop, retain and promote these stars, you can’t help but improve your company. 

Dr. Linda Henman, the Decision Catalyst®, is one of those rare experts who can say she’s a coach, consultant, speaker and author. For more than 35 years, she has worked with Fortune 500 companies and small businesses that want to think strategically, grow dramatically, promote intelligently, and compete successfully today and tomorrow. Some of her clients include Emerson Electric, Boeing, Avon and Tyson Foods.


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