Lessons for construction project managers

Deborah K. Vick

​A terrible war is raging in Ukraine killing innocent people. Two very different leaders face-off. Much has been said comparing them. Are there lessons that could make you a better construction manager?

While I don’t want to trivialise a tragic war, I believe that we can all learn from every situation. We should be learning from mistakes as well as successes. We can learn from good leaders as well as bad leaders. Why repeat the mistakes of others? Why not learn from good leaders – but even good leaders sometimes make mistakes.

“I always said to those that worked with me that I wanted them to be better than me. They should learn from my mistakes and not repeat them.”

I always said to those that worked with me that I wanted them to be better than me. They should learn from my mistakes and not repeat them. They should learn from my good traits and replicate them better. If they were not better than me then I had failed.

Lessons for construction project managers

  • Visit the coal face. Regularly go out onto your project.

Too often construction project managers think that they can manage a construction project from behind a desk, behind a computer screen. As a construction project manager I was out on the project site 2 or 3 times a day. Looking for potential issues, safety, quality, progress, productivity, and people. Solving problems. Talking to my team – understanding their mood and issues. Even as a senior director I tried to get to all my construction projects at least once a month. And my teams appreciated it. I heard comments from other contractors’ workers how they never saw their senior management, or if they did it was a brief visit in the office with the project manager and the rest of the construction project team was ignored. Leaders who are remote lose touch with their people. They don’t understand the problems on the ground. 

  • Be prepared to include dissenting voices in your team.

Too often politicians surround themselves with yes men (sometimes yes women). Anyone that offers a different opinion is moved on. Living in an echo chamber eventually makes you deaf and you only hear one opinion – your opinion – which may not always be right! Diverse views are important. Have You Ever Started A Construction Project That Looked So Good, Only To Find It Was A Rotten Project? You don’t have to follow these opinions, but listening may provide alternative solutions, or highlight potential pitfalls and risks. Surround yourself with an energetic and intelligent team, not your old cronies or yes men. You cannot win with a second-rate team of has-beens who are only there because of loyalty, or to say yes and rubber stamp your decisions.

“When people are too scared to report a problem they will hide the issue”

  •  ​Your team must be encouraged to report problems or potential issues.

Some leaders are quick to blame the bearer of bad news. When people are too scared to report a problem they will hide the issue, perhaps attempt to fix it themselves and make it worse. When the problem eventually comes to light it is a raging inferno. It’s important to know of problems on your construction project early so they can be dealt with, and that there aren’t unpleasant surprises later. Encourage your construction team to communicate problems early. Sure they may still be responsible to fix the issue, but at least you can keep an eye on the situation and step in to help or give advice when needed. Your team should know that you want to hear the truth, not a sanitised version of what they think you want to hear. Your Construction Project is in Trouble – Who are you Going to Blame?

“Break your word or commitment once and you’ve lost trust. It’s hard to win back trust.”

  • ​ Good, consistent communication is important.

Keep communicating with your team, with the client, with all stakeholders. Be honest. Trust is important. Break your word or commitment once and you’ve lost trust. It’s hard to win back trust. Don’t exaggerate or pretend things are fine when they aren’t. Don’t over promise and under deliver. Successful construction demands good communication

  • Coercion only gets you so far.

People aren’t slaves. People can’t be forced to like or respect you. Loyalty can’t be forced on people. Respect comes with good leadership. Good quality, safety, or productivity cannot be instilled by coercion alone. It comes with people understanding why things should be done right. It comes with people being proud of their work. It comes with good leadership. It comes with respect, not fear. Respect in construction – why it’s important

  • Understand who you are dealing with.

Understand your team. Understand your contractors, subcontractors, and suppliers. Understand your client. Underestimating one of them could be disastrous. Overestimating abilities is equally dangerous. In construction it’s important to know your clients. It could save you.

“Many problems occur in construction due to poor or inadequate planning.”

  • Have a coherent plan and communicate it to all stakeholders.

Many problems occur in construction due to poor or inadequate planning. Problems occur when the project team does not understand the project specifications, requirements, objectives, standards, or schedule (programme). Problems occur when there is an overly optimistic construction schedule, or when the wrong assumptions are made. Everyone in the team working together delivers construction projects successfully. If one of the stakeholders pulls in another direction, has a different vision or goal, it’s disruptive.

  • Don’t let your ego impact your decision making.

It’s not about who has the biggest ego. It’s about what’s right, not who’s right. What’s the right solution. It should never be about one person. It takes a united team to build a project. Good leaders unite people.

“None of us are perfect – be prepared to change”

  • Be prepared to take criticism. Be prepared to change.

None of us are perfect – although some may think so. We can all improve. We have all made mistakes. Unfortunately too few politicians take accountability for their actions. They are too scared, or arrogant, to admit they were wrong. It takes the bigger person to say sorry, I was wrong. Conflict Resolution and Prevention on Construction Projects

  • Humanity and compassion are important.

As construction project managers you can destroy people’s lives – poor safety, discrimination, not paying people and companies fairly. Often simply to enrich oneself or company, or because of laziness or incompetence. But equally you can change people’s lives for the better. You can deliver good quality projects safely. You can train, mentor, and promote people. You can pay people and companies fairly. Are your subcontractors profitable? Should you care? You can protect the environment. I look back on my career and think of all the people I trained, mentored, and promoted. I know that I changed people’s lives for the better. But I also know that I should have done more. Empathy and compassion are important. Will your legacy be one of destroying people’s lives, or one of making the world a better place? 

“The biggest or strongest team does not guarantee a successful project.”

  • Use the right team and the right equipment.

Intelligently use your resources. The biggest or strongest team does not guarantee a successful construction project. A carpenter or cabinet maker does not use a sledgehammer. Construction equipment that continually breaks down will disrupt progress. Poorly trained people will lead to bad quality and poor productivity.

  • Good data systems are vital. But it’s also how the information gathered is treated.

Running a successful construction project requires accurate information. Measuring progress against a valid construction schedule. Preparing accurate cost reports. Monitoring quality, safety, and environmental outcomes. It’s estimated that bad data caused $1.8 trillion in losses to contractors worldwide in 2020. Of course it’s pointless having good construction project data and information if it’s ignored, or not utilised correctly. Is fake news influencing your project? Maybe you are creating fake news!

“You cannot hide problems forever”

  •  You cannot hide the truth forever

I’ve seen contractors try hide their mistakes. Quickly cover them up before the client sees. Maybe you’ve done the same. Unfortunately these mistakes usually manifest themselves later – sometimes long after the construction project is complete. Rectifying these issues is often much more expensive than if they had been fixed properly in the first place – or better still if the mistake hadn’t occurred in the first place. I always say water will always find your poor quality. In the same way project managers sometimes try and hide problems on their construction projects from their managers, hoping that things will get better. Monetary losses will miraculously turn around. The project will suddenly make up lost time. Guess what this seldom happens. You can fool some of the people all of the time, some people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Trying to hide the truth is a reflection on your integrity. Repairing defective work on your construction project

Your winning should never be at the expense of other people.

​War is a terrible thing. People who had homes, families, jobs, lives, lose everything overnight. Why? Does the end justify the means?

“When the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.” 

​In Africa there is a saying: “When the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.” Often the fight doesn’t achieve much, maybe wounded pride for one elephant, but the grass gets trampled and dies. It’s the ordinary people who suffer. To be a good leader you don’t have to be a bully. Aim to make people’s lives better. Everyone.

“Consider the consequences of your actions. Will they be worth it?”

​You should aim to avoid costly and lengthy disputes. Often disputes end with no winners. Always try and negotiate in an open and honest manner with no hidden agendas, or changing goals. It’s important to understand the other party’s restraints and their bottom-line. It’s pointless chasing something (say a monetary amount) which the other party does not have or can’t concede. When all else fails call in an independent mediator, or follow the dispute resolution process. Avoiding disputes on your construction project. Consider the consequences of your actions. Will they be worth it? What will be gained? What will the costs be? The costs of a dispute often far outweigh the end result.

“What legacy will you leave? A respected leader or a despised leader? A leader in it for yourself only or a team player?”

What legacy will you leave? A respected construction professional who delivered successful construction projects with minimal fuss and problems? Someone that stood up for their team? Someone that delivered projects where everyone was a winner? Someone that is respected? Will you be a leader that sat behind a desk, or a leader who worked with their team? Let’s not destroy people, companies, or the environment. Your winning should never be at the expense of other people. The 10 P’s of successful construction project management
​History will judge a bad leader harshly.
​#constructionmanagement #constructionprojectmanagement #contractors

Do you want to learn how to manage construction projects successfully

“​I found that referring to this book was like having my own mentor on tap. Excellent.” (Reader Amazon)

Paul Netscher has written several easy to read books for owners, contractors, construction managers, construction supervisors and foremen. They cover all aspects of construction management and are filled with tips and insights.
Visit to read more.

The books are available in paper and ebook from most online stores including Amazon.

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