What sets the construction industry apart from other industries

By Pat Rediger

Leadership skills are important in every industry, but the required skills can vary, and what works in one industry may not work in another. That’s why it’s crucial for the construction industry to develop leadership skills specific to its unique needs.

“I have found there is a world of difference between the construction industry and other industries,” said Mark Nesbitt of Nesbitt Training. “Where I work, there are the people who take a shower after work and the people in other industries who take a shower before work. That’s the easiest way to explain it. They think differently, they act differently and they talk differently. Everything is different.”

He says that part of developing leadership skills in the construction industry begins by identifying workers that can do more than what they are currently doing for their particular jobs. It’s finding that spark, realizing the potential and then working with those people to develop the skills they need to be future leaders.

It’s a process that’s not so different from Nesbitt’s upbringing. His family owned an aggregate business, where he received his first experience with people from the construction industry. At age 16, he became a construction worker and got his first job in Calgary. A short time later, he decided he wanted to further his career in the industry.

“I started at the bottom, and I was not content to be a worker because I knew I had more to offer. I could see something and figure out how to make it better. I just didn’t know what to do about it,” said Nesbitt.

When he turned 18, he was given his first self-help book, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, which changed his life. He realized that if he wanted more, he would have to concentrate on making himself better. It wasn’t just about learning the hard skills of the construction industry and the soft skills, such as working with people and adaptability.

Eighteen-year-old foreman

While he was working on his self-improvement, his efforts were noted by the company owner, and he was named foreman of the quarry despite his young age. The company grew rapidly, and Nesbitt’s career flourished simultaneously as he assumed more responsibilities. The owner confided in Nesbitt that he had set a goal to double the company’s size within five years.

“You have a pretty lofty goal, I told him, but that won’t work with some of the leaders in this company. I think we are really lacking in leadership skills. Not everyone understands how they have to sell a project and influence and motivate people,” said Nesbitt.

At that time, Nesbitt was reading books by leadership guru John Maxwell. His opinions influenced him, so he convinced the company owner to bring a Maxwell trainer to help officials develop their leadership skills. The training was well-received and served as a catalyst for the company to reach its goals.

The training also lit a spark in Nesbitt, and he began to evaluate his own skills as a leadership trainer. He recalled attending a training session featuring presenters from other industries and universities and feeling that their training missed the mark for the construction industry. Although some of the messaging might be the same, it must be emphasized differently to resonate with construction workers.

So, 25 years after he entered the industry, Nesbitt leaped at a second career. The John Maxwell company approached him to become a trainer. While initially he was not interested in being a teacher, he was eventually convinced to try it. He knew the leadership skills needed in the construction industry, and that was all that mattered.

“I will work with office staff, but my desire is to work with boots-on-the-ground [people] because experience has shown me who can be the best leaders on any construction project,” said Nesbitt. “They are usually the ones who started their careers on the end of a shovel. They are the ones who learn a trade, moved up and advanced. How can you train these people or motivate them if you’ve never done the job yourself?”

Identifying future leaders

Part of leadership development at any construction company starts with identifying workers who have a positive attitude and are willing to go the extra mile to complete a project. The next step is training those individuals to lead parts of the organization. The trouble is that many companies don’t use this process.

“If you bring in a worker and gave them an $800,000 loader to operate, you would probably make sure that someone from a company like Caterpillar came in and trained them on how to use it, how to become an efficient operator and all the safety aspects, which would help that person succeed. What I see in a lot of blue-collar trades is that someone is placed in a leadership position, but they are not taught how to lead,” Nesbitt said.

Nesbitt says he often sees people recently promoted out doing their former jobs because that’s what they know best and can excel at. They don’t realize that’s not their job anymore, and they have to do a different set of tasks, but they aren’t sure how to do them.

Teaching leadership skills doesn’t necessarily need to be complicated. It can be as simple as sharing an audiobook that discusses how to build a better team. Nesbitt is a big fan of audiobooks, having a library of 350 books on his iPhone. Every company should have a library of leadership books and resources to share with their staff.

As worker, recruitment and retention become increasingly more important in the construction industry, Nesbitt says that companies need to focus more on creating winning work teams that people want to join. It’s similar to a professional hockey or football team – everyone wants to join when the team is winning but jumps off the bandwagon during difficult times.

The reasons why people don’t stay in their jobs have been relatively consistent over the years – they do not see a future for themselves with the company. It’s vital to compliment workers for their efforts and position them for future leadership positions.

“If you put somebody in leadership training, you’re investing in them because you want them here for the future. They are the future of a company, and when a company does that, and the leaders motivate the workers, then the workers say, ‘I’ve got a future here.’”  

This article originally appeared in Piling Canada magazine.