Leadership Insights to Reflect on Amid COVID-19

Thoughtware Alert Published: Apr 03, 2020
Two construction helmets sitting on a bench

Throughout our careers there are certain events that work to shape not only our organizations but who we are as leaders. It’s believed that we derive the most benefit from these experiences when we recognize, reflect and respond accordingly to them. This requires self-awareness, disciplined reflection and a willingness to grow and learn.

Over the last few weeks, the SARS-CoV-2 virus and incidence of COVID-19 (COVID-19) have brought seemingly ever-changing conditions and an avalanche of streaming news and email updates, making it nearly impossible to see through the whiteout to the leadership lessons on the other side. However, as we’ve been helping our construction clients respond and prepare for the uncertainty that lies ahead, there appears to be a handful of early leadership themes emerging that are worthy of contemplation. 

Some may view this pandemic as an economic threat, but the construction industry—especially in light of a potential phase-four infrastructure bill—is uniquely positioned  to find opportunities for success. However, the key to achieving this will be one’s own leadership perspective.

With this mind, here are five leadership considerations to stimulate thinking regarding opportunities for personal and organizational growth.

1. Confront Plateau Barriers

During the Great Recession the construction industry was hit hard. As a result, most construction companies were left trying to rebuild their businesses, even years after 2009 when the recession officially ended. However, the industry responded with booming economic growth. Companies subsequently struggled to meet the demand due to a lack of skilled trade workers. As this occurred, another issue quietly crept into many construction businesses.

While companies were busy working in the business, many found little time to work on their business. Consequently, fervor to enhance planning techniques has waned. Efforts at continual improvement have become stale. For example, maybe installation methods or quoting processes haven’t been examined or evaluated for several years. It’s time to take a hard look at these areas and find ways to enhance them.

The reality is every business has areas of plateau, and these areas often hinder growth. In fact, without an initiating event or, as some have called it, a “strategic inflection point,” we’re likely to rely on past skills or experiences, causing us not to see these problem areas or be able to think differently about them. The challenge for leaders is to allow events like COVID-19 to not only expose these areas but stoke learning and curiosity so they can be creatively confronted.

2. Address Your Own Leadership Inflexibility

Many leaders in the construction industry are strong-willed individuals with strong convictions about their respective trades. This has helped grow successful companies, especially given the mental toughness needed to survive in such a demanding industry. However, this also has caused many construction leaders to be inflexible and resistant to change as it relates to their management style. 

For example, some construction companies have mandated that management teams work from the office. However, with social distancing mandates, this isn’t currently possible for some businesses. Many owners are now finding that their teams are actually getting more accomplished by working remotely.

While this might not seem like a seismic shift in thinking, the point is that every leader holds certain assumptions, right or wrong, that create varying levels of leadership inflexibility. Leaders in the construction industry should consider how to leverage the strength of this trait while being more amenable to change in the days ahead.

3. Flatten Leadership Hierarchies

Every organization has a leadership logic, which is the combination of beliefs and behaviors regarding how work gets accomplished. Since the construction industry is built on project deadlines, productivity and quality standards, often the dominant leadership culture is command and control. This means that decision making is concentrated to a special few at the top. While this may be a good mechanism for meeting control standards, it doesn’t create the problem-solving, ownership culture needed to develop new leaders and find innovative ways of solving old problems.

Several of our clients have acknowledged how middle management leadership has stepped up in recent days. Teams are taking care of one another and even families who have elderly or quarantined members. Furthermore, we’ve heard that more voluntary action is occurring on job sites. Teams are making necessary changes and holding others accountable to new safety standards. 

These are small steps. Nonetheless, COVID-19 reveals leadership can come from every level of an organization. In the past, some construction companies haven’t been able to decentralize decision making and problem solving to make real-time job site decisions. This may be the opportunity to consider how to best flatten leadership hierarchies to enhance the overall collective leadership capability within the business.

4. Bolster Organizational Identity

A business’s culture is its DNA. It’s often formed at birth through entrepreneurial vision, family legacy or a set of distinct company values. But over time, if not cultivated, organizational identity can fade as founders pass on, next generations come aboard and new geographic regions are added. This creates not only “missional drift” but also affects how employees view themselves and the companies they work for.

As travel mandates have gone into place, many trades workers have felt encouraged by being considered essential. It’s not lost on employees that the work they do is essential and is now being recognized as such.

While we don’t need a global pandemic to tell us this, it does serve as a helpful reminder. How we respond to the current crisis will go a long way in continuing to not only reinforce and demonstrate our company values but also solidify the pride and craftsmanship of our employees.

5. Refocus on Serving People as a Means & Goal of Leadership  

During a crisis, it’s easy for organizations to focus on dealing with the urgent issues and lose sight of the bigger picture, especially where they’ll be when the pandemic subsides. Construction is built on people. Effective leaders know this and make people a priority. 

Several construction companies are refocusing their attention on their people. For some, this means increasing training hours for those whose job sites have slowed or shut down. Other businesses have set aside pools of money to help those in need. Still others are communicating to employees how the company intends to meet its obligations to help reduce fear and calm anxiety about the future.

A crisis often brings either the best or worst out in a person. But effective leaders don’t lose sight of the end goal. We exist to serve people. That’s the means and goal of leadership. As we lead with our people in mind, we’ll find that trust will deepen, teams will grow stronger and new leaders will emerge throughout our organizations who are drawn to leadership that isn’t self-seeking but has a genuine concern for them. 

The future is uncertain. There’s a lot we don’t yet know. COVID-19 will certainly still bring with it many challenges we can’t foresee. However, what we do know is that events like this carry with them the potential to either paralyze us or propel us forward. If we view COVID-19 as an opportunity to grow our businesses and leadership, we’ll find that the construction industry will not only overcome this crisis but become stronger from it. Together, we can do this.

For more information, reach out to your BKD Trusted Advisor or use the Contact Us form below.

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