Features - Business

Leadership skills: investing in the heart of the organisation

It is well documented that behavioural skills are just as important as technical skills in the construction industry. In particular, those in key influential positions – the ‘leaders’ at all levels who create the environment and culture – need to possess these skills as an integral part of managing their teams and stakeholders. The quality of their daily leadership behaviour is hugely significant in determining a project’s overall success or failure.

In this article we speak to Steve Holliday, Director at Lacerta Consulting, a culture and behavioural change consultancy that works with a range of national and international organisations. Steve specialises in cultures of leadership, safety and customer orientation, he says that the quality of daily leadership behaviour is hugely significant in determining a project’s overall success or failure.

Despite more of an effort in recent years to invest in the leadership skills of what are often called ‘middle and front-line managers’, the most significant development investments are still retained for directors, senior managers, and for talent development.

How many site managers or department heads have long-term access to a leadership coach? How many local teams have access to deep team development work? How many foremen or supervisors get regular support and challenge from a change specialist who knows their operational world? Not many.

Indeed, many of these managers may not even think of themselves as leaders, thinking that this title is reserved for ‘those above them’. That in itself is a challenge, as in order to lead effectively, we all need to bring the best version of ourselves.

Good leadership is a craft that requires time, investment, training, and deep practice. To be clear, directors, senior managers and those identified as future talent all need investment and nurturing.

However, supporting the leadership practice of those ‘middle’ people, who actually lead and engage most of the employees on a day-to-day basis, is one of the most valuable development investments organisations can and must make.

These people have to navigate partnering with their senior managers in understanding the mission, strategy, targets and expectations, while at the same time, engaging their own teams in delivering both the right approaches and end results – often amid significant change.

Given this backdrop, deeper investment in growing these people is not only inevitable, it’s essential. So, what core behavioural skills are crucial to thrive in these roles?

Building Relationships

Central to building relationships is communicating effectively with each different character you find yourself working with. Not only are we all different, but it is often the case that different types of language gets used as you go through an organisation from senior managers to front line. As such, it takes skill and practice to get to know people, to tune into understanding each other, and to build the relationship so that openness and trust develops.

All of this requires high levels of self-awareness and leadership practice, to develop the range so you can engage well with the various parties in the organisation – be that shop floor, peers at site or department head level, with senior managers, or customers.

Managing relationships successfully can be the difference between completing a build on time or not, and doing it safely, to a high quality, and on budget.

Developing Resilience

Resilience – our ability to adapt and bounce back when things don’t go as planned – is a real skill, and can easily be mistaken for toughness. Actually, it’s much more about elasticity, and working to deliberately stretch the size of that elastic.

Frontline construction managers are caught in the middle of a pressure zone, as they manage competing demands from their senior managers and their teams. This can be further compounded if they are in dispersed teams; with a more senior manager in one location and their direct team in another, they can be pulled in different directions.

In the same way professional sports people develop their ability to become good at dealing with pressure, so too managers need development to be able to thrive when pressure builds.

Managers need to develop the skill of seeing difficulty as a challenge, not as a paralysing event. Failures and mistakes are chances to learn and grow, and not a personal reflection of their competence or talent. These moments need to be seen as temporary, and something to be worked through.

Managers also need to grow the practice of placing focus and energy on the things they can impact, which in turn will help them to feel empowered and confident.

Developing Agility

Whether it be a merger, contractual changes, an internal restructure, or commercial pressures in the market, things are constantly changing – and so must we. The most successful people get good at moving and adapting to what is playing out.

How do we use what we know and apply it to new situations and have a go? How can we learn, adapt, and apply ourselves in changing situations? This is a paradoxical experience for middle and front-line managers, who often speak of wishing for stability and certainty – for a while at least.

In reality, organisations are often both stable and certain, while at the same time, unstable and uncertain – such is the complexity and nature of organisations and the changing nature of markets they are in.

To that end, organisations can really help managers develop the ability to navigate change when it comes – and this should be expected as a core skill. This means nurturing a mindset that change is inevitable, while at the same time ensuring enough discipline, rigour and high standards to enable that very change.

Following the development of that mindset, it’s key to focus on:

  • Empowering people – to take on these challenges, and that you have belief in their ability to lead them. Make this normal. Risk taking and experimentation needs to be encouraged, without fear of failure.
  • Promoting experimentation – nurture a culture of trying things out. These experiments not only help to navigate change, but they can also make a big impact and be the difference. New ways of working can emerge, if we are ready to develop and try them.
  • Promoting collaboration & human connection – being agile will require collaboration, connection and leaning on others, and to learn more from each other through daily operational experiences. Make it clear that human connection is essential – with lots of horizontal working.

A Process to Support Developing Resilience & Agility

Helping managers to process these scenarios live is crucial to developing these skills. Action-learning groups can enable a powerful learning space to let the person talk about the live situation they’re in, unpack the disturbance and work through their thoughts and feelings, often with peers for support. Access to this type of ‘leadership cohort’ enables the person affected to quickly and safely locate the source of the issue, and helps them to get back into action sooner.

Inside these groups, nurturing the ability to improvise can be a highly effective technique in helping managers adapt to new conditions. Helping people to think on their feet and respond to something not planned for can also help to actually speed up processes.

Middle and front-line managers lead most of the workforce day to day, and therefore how they behave and lead directly correlates with performance. It follows then, that when organisations make a conscious choice to invest deeper into their leadership skills and training, it will have a significant impact on business performance.


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