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In Search of Leaders

Said a leader about men: “I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle—victorious.”—Vincent Lombardi, Coach


Said a man about leaders: “Ultimately, leadership is not about glorious crowning acts. It’s about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it, especially when the stakes are high and the consequences really matter. It is about laying the groundwork for others’ success, and then standing back and letting them shine.”—Chris Hadfield, Astronaut


It is no secret that the current leaders in the wall and ceiling industry are aging. Many owners are looking to retire over the next decade and have expressed concerns about transitioning the business.


It took strong leadership to grow the business to its current size and success, and it will take strong leadership to stay that course and grow the business further.


Finding and rearing strong, young leaders is the challenge faced by just about anyone in business or anyone who owns a business, and this lies at the core of a workable transition-strategy.


But what does leadership entail? And where do you find a good leader, or how do you train one? We turned to AWCI’s membership to find out.

Leadership Qualities

First of all, we wanted to know how our members define a leader and what qualities they look for in him or her.


According to Gary Dillman, owner of Titan Wall in Florida, “A leader is a person who influences and develops others in order to accomplish a defined goal. He or she must be a good listener, a good communicator, a good problem solver, and must be able to take constructive criticism. Also, he or she should be kind and should possess a healthy dose of common sense.”


Steve Winn, corporate credit manager at Marek Brothers in Texas, puts it this way: “A leader is someone who attracts people to a vision and equips them to work successfully toward it. Such a person needs integrity, passion and intelligence. He or she must be able to communicate that vision as well as the path to attain it. He or she must also be unflappable, must be both delegator and enabler, and must be humble enough to admit when he or she might be wrong.”


Observes Dan Hanson, president of Sundermeyer, Ltd. in Missouri, “A good leader will listen more than talk.”


Suggests Todd Lawrie, president of Delta Contracting Service, Inc. in Michigan, “A leader need not necessarily be liked, but he has to be respected. Without respect, he is merely a boss, which in essence makes him a manager rather than a leader.


“He must also be a good communicator, should have an amicable personality, and must be knowledgeable in the trade. He must be able to judge the strengths and weaknesses of his workforce in order to put one aspect to good use while improving the other.


“Also, confidence and the willingness to take responsibility for the outcome of one’s actions is a must.”


Howard Bernstein, president of Penn Installations, Inc. in Pennsylvania, looks for someone who “leads by example in an upbeat manner to inspire others.”


Timothy Rogan, vice president at Houston Lath & Plaster in Texas, says “a leader is one who looks ahead. The only time he or she looks behind is when making sure others are keeping up. That said, I look for someone who takes pride in what they do and sets a great example by their actions.”


According to Robert Aird, president of Robert A. Aird, Inc., “A leader is someone who leads from the front, is the first to arrive at work, is the last to leave. He or she is someone who leads by example, has an excellent work ethic, engages with his crew, supports them and shares knowledge.


“What I look for first and foremost is honesty. Honesty both in praise and criticism such that employees know that whatever the issue, they can rely on an honest answer.”


Says Dick Mettler, executive director of Northwest Wall & Ceiling Contractors’ Association in Washington, “A leader is someone who has the ability to motivate and direct those who work for and with him to accomplish predetermined goals. I’d look for someone who can balance experience with the personal attributes of respect for others, and who has the ability both to listen and inspire.”


Mike Heering, president of F.L. Crane & Sons, Inc. in Mississippi, defines a leader as “someone whose employees feel empowered to make decisions that benefit both themselves and the company.


“Also, I look for a person who can and will listen and who will ask questions to further their own knowledge. A leader must be able not only to convince those who work for him that his decisions are correct, but must also be open to suggestions that might improve the team’s approach.”


Giles Turgeon, president of Green Mountain Drywall Co., Inc. in Vermont, defines a leader as a person who is “not afraid to make decisions, somebody who can and will assume responsibility. I expect a leader to be smart, capable of learning and a good listener. He should also be able to communicate with everybody on a job site, from laborers to owners.”


Offers Charles Antone, consultant at Building Enclosure Science in Rhode Island: “The archetypal military leader comes to mind, someone who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps and who now can convince a bunch of 18- to 22-year-old kids to scale a hill and kill people they have never met. Patton would be an example.


“Also, good leaders have the ability to make others work well and naturally with each other. They provide both the environment and the tools to allow others to succeed. Once this is done, they get out of the way. Such a leader is basically an enabler.”


“A good leader understands the strengths and weaknesses within his or her organization and directs the company accordingly,” says Greg Smith, vice president of estimating at Superior Wall Systems in California. “A leader must know the people within the organization and ensure that the right people are placed in the right place for maximum success. Doing this, and allowing the people in the organization to excel, creates a highly motivated work force that believes in the company’s direction and will do everything they can to ensure its success.”


According to Sabra Phillips, director of talent development at Marek Brothers Systems, Inc. in Texas, “The paradox of leadership is how to be both everything and nothing at the same time. It’s about being everything for your people and empowering them to achieve great things, about being nothing when it comes to claiming the credit for a job well done.


“I expect leaders to be learners, to be curious, to treat others with dignity and respect and to give their all. I look for people who have heart, who care deeply about others and our work and who care about making a difference for each other and our customers.


“The best leaders are honest and fair. They listen and are open to new ideas. They follow through on commitments, instill confidence in others, set the example in terms of work ethic and, most importantly, respect others and earn their respect in return.”


Observes Robert Sutton, senior project manager/estimator at Reitter Stucco and Supply in Ohio, “Leadership starts with a vision, the ability to see beyond today, tomorrow or next week. A leader then provides direction and guidance to those in need while assisting and serving those who already make a positive impact. I look for the innate ability to maintain a positive attitude even during the rougher stretches, while being cautious during the more robust periods.”

Construction Requires More

Given general leadership qualities, are there additional qualities that are uniquely demanded by our industry?


There are, says Dillman: “Our leaders need thick skin, must be unfazed by pressure, must be able to multitask, able to dig self out of holes, able to work with people from different backgrounds and cultures, and able to remain calm when everyone else is panicking.”


Adds Aird, “There must be a willingness to get your hands dirty—whether it is in the field showing employees how to complete a task or in the office doing the estimate that others don’t have the time or expertise to do.”


Mettler suggests, “A leader in our industry is aware that construction is often viewed as a ‘dirty’ and not very desirable industry, so he or she must be able to convey that it is in fact an honorable and much needed part of our economy. A leader must be able to instill the pride that our industry deserves.”


Says Heering, “Leaders in our industry usually deal with a broader-than-normal range of employees from multiple ethnic groups and varied educational range. He or she must be able to face and handle that.”


Sutton adds, “Unforeseen obstacles are a common problem that plague the construction site, and our leader must have the capability to overcome those issues and challenges.”

Leaders versus Managers

What are the differences between leaders and managers?


Says Dillman, “A leader has the vision while managers help guide those visions to fruition.”


Winn adds, “Leaders undertake conquests, great and small. Managers maintain that which leaders have conquered.”


Observes Bernstein, “Leaders take management to a higher level, recognizing long-term goals and inspiring those around them. People often resent managers while they respect leaders.”


Says Aird, “A leader inspires his/her employees so that they want to do what is necessary. A manager, by contrast, might just point a finger and demand that you to do it.”


Adds Antone, “Leadership is a character trait, a manager is a position.”


Observes Sutton, “A manager simply directs the operation and will have employees work for him, while a leader will share the vision, and promote a team environment and having employees work with him.”

Developing Leadership

How do you teach, train or develop leadership?


Hanson says to do it “by example. Remove private office walls.”


Adds Bernstein, “I believe that leadership traits need be present already and, if so, mentoring is the best way to further those traits.”


Mettler says that “leadership potential needs to be inherent in a person. The best ways to create a leader is to find someone who has the right attributes, then mentor or train him or her.”


Says Turgeon, “I believe a good leader needs to start at the bottom of the ladder and know every facet of the job.”


Observes Smith, “A big part of teaching, training and recruiting leaders is seeing how their peers respond to them. Some people are born leaders, and they just need the necessary experience to go with their natural talent to become a leader whom others will follow. Others become leaders only after years of experience.”


Phillips notes that at his company, they have an “existing field leadership-development program for new field leaders that includes on-the-job training and mentoring, peer groups and interactive classroom workshops on leadership.”


Suggests Sutton, “You develop leaders by having existing, good leaders mentor younger, potential leaders. Yes, it is true that there are those who will catch on quicker than others, but I don’t believe leadership is in someone’s DNA.”

Finding and Retaining Potential Leaders

What works in recruiting or training future leaders, and how do you retain these candidates?


Hanson observes, “Employees who seek to move up in the organization always outperform those I have recruited as possible leaders. For this reason, you need to provide an environment where employees have the opportunity to better themselves.


“Also, you should have a published formula for rewarding performance, and stick to it while you also throw in some surprise rewards.”


Quips Lawrie, “You cannot teach a fish to fly. You can throw it in the air, but the time airborne isn’t flight, it is just an illustration of some sort of law of physics that likely states that the harder you throw a fish, the farther that fish will travel and the more pronounced the fish’s landing will be.


“The best leaders, who seem few and far between, are self-motivated. They do not come to me with problems, they come to me with solutions.”


In Bernstein’s experience, “I think that other members of the team recognize leadership traits and tend to rally around such individuals. As a company, one should allow such individuals to blossom and give them all the support and encouragement possible. Check your ego at the door and support those who strengthen the team.”


Says Mettler, “The leader has to want to be a leader, that’s the starting point. You only see that by how they interact with others, how they act on the job. The potential leader has the desire both to excel and lead, and you need to make sure that his or her job never becomes mundane: Give them diverse tasks and challenges.”


Suggests Heering, “I think the sooner you allow a potential leader to become involved with the decision-making process, the sooner he or she will feel a part of the leadership team and so gain the confidence to voice thoughts that might actually help in that process. Once they feel they are actually on the team, they are less likely to be looking for something somewhere else.”


In order to retain leadership candidates, suggests Phillips, we must be able to “articulate a clear vision for the future and include such candidates in that vision. Emerging leaders want to have a voice about where we are going as well as insight into how they can contribute.


“Developing and retaining leaders is a big responsibility that involves both vulnerability and trust. There’s the responsibility to deliver on a bright future, there’s the vulnerability to admit we do not have all the answers, and there’s the mutual trust in working together to achieve that future.”


Adds Sutton, “When you spot someone with a desire to excel at their position and move to the next, someone who exceeds expectations without prompting, someone who is hungry for more, you have a potential leader.


“What has worked for me in the past is allowing his or her skills to develop, not pushing but cultivating. Having unrealistic expectations in someone will create more issues than just failed leadership.


“Some people simply do not want to be a leader. They are happy taking on the role of follower and this has to be recognized by management.”

Final Thought

Mike Heering sums things up nicely: “I think that when you are looking for the person who will become your next strong leader, take the time to work up personal profiles on him or her to ensure that they indeed possess the traits and skills you are looking for and that, more importantly, they want to become a leader.”


Your search for the leader to transition your company should begin internally. Look for that self-starter in your organization who wants to excel and who wants to take on more responsibility—he or she may well be your leader in the making. Then cherish, mentor and challenge.

California-based Ulf Wolf is the senior writer at Words & Images.

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