Developing your Frontline Supervisor

The frontline supervisor, sometimes referred to as the foreman or field supervisor, is one of the most important roles on a construction site. They manage a project to fruition, on time and on budget by skillfully bringing together a wide range of complex elements. More than just managing the site, however, the foundation of the job is to lead people. This job requires skills that are sometimes different from what higher-level managers expect.

What often happens, is that the person with the best track record or the most experience is promoted from within an organization to frontline supervisor. This experience doesn't always include managing people, a necessary skill for dealing with the challenges associated with the position. The decision is based on a person's high level of knowledge in construction, which is, without a doubt, also important. However, on a daily basis, these supervisors are asked to marshal resources; and meet safety, environmental, quality, productivity and schedule requirements in a fast-paced environment. At the same time, they must motivate their crews, deal with employee and customer issues, manage an ever-increasing amount of paperwork, all while protecting the company's image and interests. 

This kind of environment can be overwhelming for someone who has not had proper supervisor training. Instincts can often move toward a more imperialistic approach. This situation can create an unproductive work environment, where employee satisfaction is low, and turnover of skilled employees is high. With a scarcity of skilled craft persons, and the situation predicted to worsen, having competent field supervisors is therefore critical. Construction firms can ill afford to lose good workers to their competition.

Teaching Leadership

You don’t manage people, you manage things. You lead people” --Grace Hopper, Rear Admiral US Navy

Leadership is not often thought of as a necessary skill but more of a quality. You either have it or you don’t. But when working in a position of authority, it’s necessary and possible to develop a leadership orientation for creating a well functioning work space. Here are some things to consider to bring leadership to the forefront of a construction site:

1) Training and Development

It’s important to make sure there is a system of support, mentorship, and development. Rather than letting things happen organically, a good leader will be strategic about making sure that workers are learning as they work. This includes knowing what people want to learn, which requires communication.

2) Empathy

A good leader will understand the feelings of those around them, and not be threatened by them. If someone is unhappy on the job, we often presume to know exactly the reason why. Sometimes, it’s just a lack of engagement that can be mediated by a targeted development plan. It could also be that some employees feel their potential isn’t being realized. You won’t know if you dismiss their feelings outright.

3) Communication

A frustrating work situation can be created when teams lack communication and feel that time has been wasted because the proper goals weren’t given at the start. Developing a communication plan as a habit, will take a lot of the guesswork out of what’s happening at the site vs. what’s expected of individuals. One of the best feelings to have in a work environment is the feeling of having accomplished something. If goals or expectations aren’t communicated then there is no way for people to know what they’ve accomplished.

Can leadership be taught?

When speaking of frontline supervisors, Herb Sargent, CEO of Sargent Corporation said, “The field level is where the rubber meets the road - from concept to reality. If we are going to spend money, we know the best bang for the buck is to enable the field staff to take their abilities to another level.” Professional development in the area of leadership should be at the top of the list of priorities for anyone who achieves the frontline supervisor position.

Leadership - in particular, the quality of supervision and the nature of relationships between supervisors and their teams - is crucial to performance in each of these areas. Front-line managers can have the single largest impact on your organization. A good (or bad) manager affects employee performance and satisfaction, safety, quality, productivity, turnover and the overall health of any organization.

The reason frontline supervisors play such a crucial role in the well-being of an organization is that they are the ones who interact daily with the people that do the work. When a solid plan for development of leadership skills is a normal part of a construction firm’s process, the entire company benefits.