My partner Dennis Engelbrecht says, "We are all flawed leaders," and he's right. There's no such thing as a perfect leader. We've seen some great leaders in some remarkable construction firms, but we haven't found the perfect one yet. When we find one, you'll read it here first.
Senior leaders cast long shadows over their organizations. Their companies take on and reflect their personalities. If the leader is a jerk, he might have a jerk organization. If he is a super-caring person, he probably has a super-caring organization. If he is like most of us in the middle somewhere, the organization reflects his personality differently. However, some flaws are more damaging than others. To the degree one has personality flaws or is too excessive in one area or another, that can create ripple effects in the organization.
What about this is important do you? This article will outline three types of leadership that tend to be troublesome in construction companies. It may help you do a little self-diagnosis and provide ideas for self-improvement.
1. The overconfident leader. This type of leader is often seen among founders of contracting firms. Why is that? Think about it: founders usually start with almost nothing. They had only ideas, a tremendous capacity for hard work, a desire to be successful, and a nebulous concept about how to prosper. They started up, grew to new plateau after new plateau, and eventually went from no jobs and no revenue to, let's say, $50 million in volume over the course of a 25- or 30-year working lifetime. They overcame not just a few, or a handful, or dozens of challenges, they overcame tens of thousands, and they always somehow came out okay. They're probably more successful than they ever dared to dream when they were young people. Why should they worry? If a problem comes along, they'll just handle it. Marshall Goldsmith wrote a book called "What Got You Here Won't Get You There" and it's absolutely spot-on for construction companies. Go ahead and congratulate yourself; you've been super successful to get to where you are. However, if you want to be bigger or better, you're going to need to reinvent. The world and its challenges are dramatically different today from what they were even two years ago. Periodic reinvention is the key, and overconfident leaders have a hard time changing the behaviors that made them successful in the past. Ironically, the things that made them successful to get to $50 million of volume hold them back as they try to get to $75 or $100 million. To grow beyond a certain point, they must stop doing tasks and start managing people, and that's very difficult for founders because they're all about hard work.
2. The impulsive leader. These leaders are distracted frequently by "shiny objects." They leap from initiative to initiative, earthshaking idea to earthshaking idea, and it's exhausting and disruptive. They unwittingly undermine their own credibility because they say, “In 2022, we're going to do X!" Then by Feb. 15 they are on to something else. By June, it’s yet another brilliant idea. Their people become skeptical. If the leader repeatedly says, “This is the latest and greatest!”—why would their employees believe that the next initiative is going to be different from any of the others he failed to bring to fruition?
3. The rigidly controlling leader. This kind of leader is domineering and micromanages. Every decision, no matter how small, has to go through that checkpoint. I knew a leader who ran a company that consumed vast amounts of electricity; his power bill was around $200,000 per month! An employee sent a $13 FedEx package without the CEO’s permission, and he tore that company apart to find the culprit who had the temerity to send a $13 package without his permission. How foolish is that? What a waste of time that was! I'm not suggesting that anyone be profligate, but a $13 expense in the context of a company that spends a couple of hundred grand on its electric bill each month? That's penny-wise and pound foolish! People who work for highly dictatorial leaders find that there's little psychological safety. If a $13 package causes the leader to turn the company upside down, what transgression won't be under the microscope? People become fearful that if anything goes wrong, a ton of bricks will fall on them. That's hardly the kind of environment that encourages employee initiative.
If you self-diagnose and fear you may fall into any one of these three unproductive leadership categories, here are four tips.
1. Encourage healthy debate, even healthy disagreement, in your company. It's going to take some training and patience for you, and it's going to take training for your people. Let them know it’s a new day and that it's okay to challenge you with alternative ideas.
2. Find people who are confident enough to challenge you. Give them airtime so the other employees can see that it's alright. It's going to take someone with a great deal of courage to stand up to a very strong-willed leader, but they are out there.
3. Build your big picture strategy and STICK WITH IT. Work with your very best people and develop a long-term strategic plan. Then communicate and evangelize it to everyone in your organization. Stick to the plan, work it, and do not be distracted by shiny objects.
4. Invest time and effort with risk-taking peers. Find a way to interact with people who walk in your shoes, other senior leaders in growing construction companies. Find people who are willing to challenge you, hold you accountable for your own good, and want the same accountability from you. Find a network of risk-taking contractors who can challenge you to do the things you know in your heart that you ought to be doing anyway.