Piling Canada

Building Relationships

By Rowan O'Grady, President, Hays Canada
December 2014

The construction industry is a tough business. It’s highly competitive with razor thin margins. And while that aspect of this sector isn’t new, the pressure to find talent in a candidate-short market means today’s construction leaders must develop a new skill set to retain staff and motivate employees to maximize profits. They need soft skills – empathy, clear

communication and the ability to mentor.

According to data collected from more than 100 Canadian vice presidents of construction as part of Hays Canada’s DNA of a VP of construction report, almost a third (28 per cent) maintain that the single most important attribute that has helped them achieve success is soft skills.

This will come as a surprise to people outside the industry who might typically describe a leader in construction as hardened and gruff. Today’s VP of construction is the complete opposite. In fact, 83 per cent of construction leaders describe their leadership style as “friendship-based” – compassionate and focused on building relationships, rather than “directional based” and focused on strict structure and allocating work.

The VP of construction has evolved with the times, as soft skills have risen as a priority skill set across a wide range of C-suite functions for today’s business environment. It is even more pronounced in construction because of how complicated this industry is.

Long-term planning in construction is very difficult due to continuous boom and bust cycles that force the industry to shift and pivot to meet new market demands, which can suddenly slow or change quickly from condominium to infrastructure work. As a result, forecasting five years out is difficult to do with any accuracy. Being flexible and possessing strong communications skills allows human capital to be deployed accordingly and cushion the blow in times of dramatic change.

And even when business is predictably humming along, the day-to-day of a construction leader is fraught with the challenges of coordinating a build project. On massive projects, a director or VP of construction can be managing 50 to 60 independent organizations. Project plans are constantly changing to accommodate inevitable kinks in the chain of development. In this kind of environment, construction leaders have to accept that mistakes will be made, and the unexpected will happen – all you can do is navigate your way through.


A leader with soft skills can create a homogeneous working environment that keeps people focused on business goals. Everyone needs to work in concert to see a project through to completion. Being forceful, rigid and lacking empathy are surefire ways to reduce staff retention and increase project delays, which affect the bottom line. As an example, there are benefits to keeping contractors and subcontractors happy; this can lead to increased efficiencies on subsequent projects because they’ll be motivated to work for you, and are familiar with your expectations.

Rising to the top
While soft skills are a key asset for top professionals, rising stars in construction shouldn’t be too quick to race to the finish line. The career path of a VP of construction has three distinct stages that start with learning the fundamentals before proceeding to more nuanced skills.

According to research, a typical VP of construction spends the first five years in the industry building technical knowledge and developing and integrating new platforms. During this stage of career development, construction professionals should strive for a broad range of experiences across multiple sectors within construction.

Accumulating niche experiences will also help build your profile. Working in a trade, and then as an estimator, project manager, superintendent and planner will round out your industry knowledge and provide necessary insight to manage these functions later on.

It’s also vital to expand the kind of projects you work on. Proven VPs of construction have diversified their accomplishments. Many have worked in residential, commercial and infrastructure. Rather than obsessing over a more senior title, or working on similar but larger projects, extend yourself by learning something new.

Of course, there are also baseline qualifications that will smooth entry into this business. Seventy per cent list at least one certification on their resume, e.g. LEED or Goldseal. Twenty-eight per cent have a bachelor of science in engineering, 30 per cent have a diploma in engineering and 27 per cent have a Masters of Business Administration. Interestingly, and this speaks to the pragmatic nature of the construction industry, 36 per cent of respondents said education and training don’t matter at all, and experience and achievements are all that count.


After being initiated into construction, professionals can expect the next three to 10 years to be defined by project and people management and the growth of business acumen. Those who are successful at senior management roles run day-to-day operations, and apply market and industry knowledge to strategic business plans. Being commercially aware, building strong relationships organization-wide and constantly improving processes will demonstrate your commitment to the company’s vision while providing tangible examples of your leadership abilities.

Perhaps that’s why almost a third (30 per cent) of VPs of construction say the most difficult level to be promoted from was senior management. There’s clearly a lot to master before transitioning into a senior executive role that focuses primarily on building high performance teams where the blueprint for success is based on soft skills. The takeaway here is that the VP is only as good as the supporting team. Bringing the right people onboard, clearly communicating goals and creating a collaborative working culture is essential. A detailed recruitment strategy should be a priority.

The construction industry isn’t solely about engineering feats, heavy manufacturing equipment and raw materials. It’s a people business. Managing people requires highly developed communication skills and an ability to motivate and mentor; it also requires fine-tuned emotional intelligence to get everyone working on the same page. That’s how successful VPs of construction create and manage high performing teams. Developing soft skills will position construction professionals to manage the tight margins, deadlines and specifics associated with this competitive industry.   

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Category: Business

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Piling Canada is the premier national voice for the Canadian deep foundation construction industry. Each issue is dedicated to providing readers with current and informative editorial, including project updates, company profiles, technological advancements, safety news, environmental information, HR advice, pertinent legal issues and more.

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