Piling Canada

Setting Direction

Empowering field leaders improves project management skills and prevents burnout
Written by Teddy Kiniry
April 2024

In the fast-paced world of the construction industry, leadership isn’t just about overseeing projects; it’s about navigating through rapid changes. One major challenge facing the construction industry is the looming talent gap. According to the Associated Builders and Contractors, “the construction industry [needed] to attract an estimated 546,000 additional workers on top of the normal pace of hiring in 2023 to meet the demand for labour.” This gap puts an emphasis on the attraction of talent, but even more acute is the development and investment in the people already in an organization.

Investing in the people who are already in the organization can pay tremendous dividends to both the individuals being invested in and the organization. Individuals with adequate training will feel more confident managing and leading their projects, and are less likely to feel the strain of burnout. For organizations, the investment in people can help build their talent pipeline and reduce turnover.

According to FMI’s 2023 Talent Study, the most difficult position to fill in the industry is field management. With that understanding, an emphasis on the investment in field leaders should be top of mind for all construction firms.

Field leader development

As construction firms face the challenge of finding and retaining talented individuals, intentionally developing field leaders becomes a strategic imperative. Field leaders, at the forefront of project delivery, need a unique set of skills to thrive in their roles. In FMI’s 2023 research on field leaders, they found that “field leaders who have received proper training are almost 20 per cent more likely to feel they are equipped to manage and lead their projects compared to their counterparts without training.”

This increased capacity is not just about executing more work more quickly. Providing training and helping field leaders feel more in control of their projects can help decrease the rate of burnout of those individuals.

Once the key skill gaps for an organization are identified, there are many ways to intentionally develop the field leaders at a company. Two methods for developing leaders are mentorship and training programs dedicated specifically to leadership.

The benefits of leadership development extend beyond individual growth. Building leaders inside a company can address critical challenges that are currently facing construction firms across the industry.

FMI’s 2023 Talent Study revealed that companies anticipate a 28 per cent turnover in field managers in the next five years. With this looming attrition, succession planning within the field leadership pipeline is a pressing concern. Leadership development helps build a pipeline of qualified individuals ready to step into key roles, mitigating the risks associated with leadership gaps. The cost of replacing strong field leadership is substantial. According to Gallup, the cost of replacing an individual employee ranges from one-half to two times their salary. Beyond the direct costs like recruitment expenses, there is a loss of institutional knowledge and disruption to project continuity that is hard to put a number on. Investing in leadership development is a proactive strategy to retain valuable talent.

Going beyond technical expertise

When it comes to training, it is time to go beyond the focus on technical skills alone. Catherine Jennings, operations director and facilitator for FMI’s Field Leader Institute, who supports this statement said, “At the Field Leader Institute, we partner with field leaders across the industry and immerse them in a three-day experiential learning program aimed at elevating their self-awareness and overall leadership effectiveness.

Feedback we often receive from our attendees is the growing necessity to transform the way the industry is leading. They can no longer rely solely on their technical knowledge to influence their teams. Rather, they are tasked with challenging the old field mentality and creating new ways to invest and lead their people. By focusing on human skills, they experience higher volumes of employee engagement, retention, productivity and customer satisfaction. The reality is focusing on the soft skills produces hard results.”

Jennings also says there are many skills that need focus across the industry and understanding which of those apply to an organization’s people is a key next step.

The key questions to answer regarding field leader development are what are the current skill needs of the people in the company and how can that skill gap be closed? Taking time to get clear on what it takes to be a great field leader for the organization, then identifying the skill gaps that need to be closed, will elevate the effectiveness of any leader development effort.

Experience only goes so far

In many organizations, gaining skills over years and years of experience has likely been enough in the past. With the rapid change in expectations of field leaders, in combination with the ongoing and acute talent shortage, experience alone or without intention will not be enough to close the talent gap and build the next generation of leaders. Once the key skill gaps for an organization are identified, there are many ways to intentionally develop the field leaders at a company. Two methods for developing leaders are mentorship and training programs dedicated specifically to leadership:

Finger on red chess piece
  1. Mentorship: Pairing emerging leaders with experienced mentors provides invaluable guidance and accelerates professional growth. Transitioning from the informal mentoring efforts that typically happen within a construction company to more intentional mentoring can accelerate the development of the mentees as well as the mentors. Some ways to build structure into these mentoring relationships are:
    • Assigning mentors – Providing mentees with mentors who are both willing and appropriate for their specific stage of development is a critical aspect of an effective mentoring program.
    • Create stretch assignments – Mentees can monitor progress and provide guidance on a mentor’s effort on strategic stretch assignments.
    • Provide resources – Providing mentors with resources on mentoring best practices and ideas greatly increases their effectiveness as mentors.
  2. Formal training programs: Investing in a formal leadership development program that fits the needs of a company’s people can offer structured learning that blends leadership principles with practical construction industry insights. The outcomes to expect from a leadership development program vary greatly on the needs of the organization, but there some to expect regardless of the company’s or employee’s needs:
    • Creates a time dedicated specifically to development – Trying to fit leader development only into the moments between work can be a challenge. Putting aside time for development ensures participants are getting the most out of any program they are in.
    • Builds connection – Having multiple employees or full cohorts experience leader development at the same time gives them the opportunity to spend time and increase connection with their peers.
    • Focuses on the right skills – Picking or creating a custom program that aligns with the company and the needs of its people can increase the buy-in from employees participating.

Investing in the development of field leaders is not just an investment in individuals, it’s an investment in the future of a company and the industry. The challenges faced by leaders are complex, but with the correct skills they can navigate these challenges and lead teams to success. As a company leader it’s time to consider how the organization can prioritize and invest in the development of field leaders. The benefits are not only felt by individuals, but ripple through the entire organization. Piling Canada

Category: Education

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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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