We have both a crisis and an opportunity before us in the construction industry. First the crisis. People in the construction industry, particularly project level people and field personnel—hardworking, well-intentioned guys and gals are overworked, super stressed, and completely spent. They have no gas left in the tank. They can’t catch a breather in the never-ending unrealistic demands that are being put upon them. They are giving it everything they’ve got, until there’s nothing left to give. They are being used up and left empty. If something doesn’t change, more people will leave the industry, feeling defeated and burnt out trying to recover. Or, worse yet, they’ll stay in the industry and perform as the walking dead, going through the motions, knowing that who they are and what they have to give is never going to make a difference. So, they slog through the day in a state of exhaustion and defeat, collecting their paycheck, and hoping that the risks associated with not being present don’t catch up with them, or someone else on the job. They quit in silence while still coming to work.
The thing that bothers me most about watching this, is that many of these people are the rock stars, the up-and-comers, the cream of the crop, and the next generation of leaders that this industry needs so desperately. Unfortunately, at this pace, many of them will probably not be there by the time they get the opportunity to take the reins and make the necessary changes needed to correct the cultural malaise that our industry is facing when it comes to our people.
Over the past 7-8 years, many of the women in my “Women Building Change Leadership Boot Camps,” have spoken about how they are burnt out and exhausted by the daily, never ending, non-stop pace and stress of just trying to keep up—how they have lost the spark that once ignited their passion for the industry. And it’s not just the women. I consistently hear the same thing from the younger, and even mid-career men in the business. Fortunately, these women often get their fire back during the 4-day boot camp and they learn how to stand in their own power and lead without authority. They discover that they don’t need a title, or a rank to initiate change. They just need intention and commitment. They re-connect with the love they have for construction and the hardworking people in it. They are determined to take the bull by the horns so to speak and make a difference from wherever they stand in the company. They begin strategizing how they will initiate the changes that the industry desperately needs concerning its workforce, the way work is performed, and how teams are led. Everything from re-designing the onboarding processes for new employees, to cross-training that creates cascading task redundancy models that allows one team member to step out while another team member steps in, to provide some relief and cover the gap. I am seeing many “game changing” initiatives being led by women in the industry.
Every single boot camp convinces me more and more that women in leadership roles in this business are the key to its future. It’s unfortunate that these same women must fight twice as hard and frequently do twice the work to get promoted. They are often seen as “doers” only, but not “leaders,” and often must switch companies to get recognized as the valuable leadership assets they are and the instinctive, people focused leadership they bring. For the industry’s sake, I hope we begin to recognize their significant contribution.
Now for the opportunity. As it becomes harder to attract and retain people in our industry, it is vital that we do a better job of utilizing and leveraging the talent, great ideas, and leadership capabilities of the people that already exist in our organizations. According to Liz Wiseman, in her book Multipliers – How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, (Harper Business 2017), “The vast majority of the workforce possess far more capability, creativity, talent, initiative, and resourcefulness than their present jobs allow or even require of them.” Her research shows that on average, most managers/supervisors only utilize 66% of their people’s capability. From my perspective, this is certainly true of the women in our industry, and the men as well. This tendency to drain and diminish the skills and talents of our workforce, instead of multiplying and leveraging their capabilities is unsustainable—and frankly, not very smart. As leaders in the industry, we must start paying closer attention to the long game. And furthermore, we need to include our clients in this bigger conversation, as they will ultimately bear the negative impacts if the risks associated with the never-ending stress and pressure from unrealistic expectations in the design and construction process aren’t addressed. I’ve found that so many of the solutions to the challenges we face in construction are sitting right in front of us—they can be found with the people who are most affected by the issues of overwork and burnout, and the follow-on negative effects on quality, safety, production, and performance. It’s time for companies to truly recognize that people are our industry’s greatest asset and begin gleaning the ideas and solutions to address many of these crucial workforce issues before it’s too late.
Barbara Jackson has written books, taught courses, and developed leadership boot camps to teach the skills needed to become an effective team member and leader. She regularly speaks at conferences, in companies, and at various professional venues across the US regarding the need to develop AEC professionals and provide next level leadership training and cultural change in the construction industry.