Mentoring: The art and science of grooming the next generation

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Proven techniques for developing the next generation of leaders within your home-building company.

March 26, 2014

The art and science of developing integrity, technical skills, and strategic thinking in the next generation of building industry leaders can be challenging, but it does not need to be overwhelming. Make mentoring a way of life in your company operations and you will find that leaders will show up over time like the colorful leaves that appear in the fall.

Mentoring can take many forms: having a new employee sweep houses and serve as a gofer, creating internships, co-ops, and buddy systems, and by instituting shadowing, job trading, and learning by doing. Educational seminars, conferences, and industry publications are good training tools, and so is simply giving a new person responsibility and ownership of tasks. All of these learning experiences can lead to true happiness for mentees when they finally get to do their job on their own and experience personal accountability for the success they achieve. But they also can help create a deep and reliable leadership team. 
 
Any person who has leadership potential possesses a natural inclination to work hard, learn, and be coachable. Sometimes we squander time on people who do not possess these traits and overlook the ones who do have essential leadership attributes. So start with the right material or, in the case of young people, start by encouraging activities that promote integrity, work ethic, and the willingness to be coached.

How to find and identify future leaders

The topic of mentoring is very broad, but in my experience of working with private and public companies across the country, the following techniques are the ones that seem to produce the best results over time.
 
Hire young people to sweep houses: It may seem simple, but sweeping houses and acting as a gofer are the best ways to ground the next generation in housing early in their lives. Many successful builders say they started sweeping and cleaning houses under construction when they were about 12 years old. Once they were old enough to drive they also did errands for everyone on the site. The act of sweeping a house and picking up materials scattered around a job site teaches many things in the process. One important lesson is learning, week by week, how a house goes together. Another is learning to appreciate workmanship by observing how each trade completes their work. The best part is that working on a project allows young people to feel they are part of the team. It’s a great feeling and eventually may develop into a desire to be a bigger part of the team in the future.
  
Identify hardworking trades or individuals in your firm: Housing is one of the few industries where true grit and a good work ethic can lead to real success. Some of the best supers and other managers in housing moved up from on-the-job training. Our society is often biased regarding the need for a formal degree, but don’t overlook or discount talented and competent people who are capable of leadership within your company. Often, natural building aptitude can overcome a lack of formal training. In some instances, these employees may not be able to lead in complex situations without additional business education. But you can support their formal training in various ways if you find they possess a strong aptitude.
 
Create internships and co-ops: Bringing young college students into your company to work during summer and holiday breaks is a win–win situation. Their exposure to the work and your exposure to their abilities are very valuable. Often, the summer intern goes on to become a valued and important part of the management team. Many of my clients have developed great relationships with trade schools and colleges and recruit from them frequently. There are many good construction management programs in the country. I have met and worked with many graduates and can recommend the programs at Colorado State University, Brigham Young University, and North Florida State in Jacksonville, Fla., and there are many more.
 
Recruit a management class: In instances where rapid growth is expected, it is important to build a bench of new recruits in either general management or in a specific area. For companies that are going to secure significant capital or go public, it is important to assemble a team of management talent to lead the company forward. The first string should be seasoned professionals, with a second string being groomed for senior management over time. It is important to make sure the value systems of your recruits and your current management team are aligned.

Mentoring for success

 
Once you have your talent, whether from the younger generation in your own family, recruiting from schools, or from the workforce at large, there are numerous ways to transfer knowledge and develop talent. Here are a few important ones:
 
Buddy system: One of the most effective ways to train and ensure that a new recruit does not feel lost at sea is to assign an official buddy—someone who is skilled and experienced enough to give guidance and support as needed but is not so senior that the newbie feels intimidated. Many times new recruits are somewhat shy to admit how clueless they are. You want to make sure they feel comfortable in asking questions; a buddy can make the learning process less intimidating. The buddy should be a person new employees can text, email, call, or meet at any time as they learn their new job.
 
Shadows or trainees: Having a shadow or trainee by your side in some business settings is a great way to teach on the fly. Shadowing allows a new employee to watch and listen while business is conducted. If you have important meetings or teachable moments coming up, bring along the talent you are trying to develop. Much can be learned by observing professional interactions, and the new talent can feel the excitement of doing business deals and making risk-and-reward decisions. In addition, they will be able to observe the nuances of negotiating, when to talk, when not to, and when to be assertive or accommodating. I will never forget the time I was in a meeting with a CFO and the phone rang. He looked at the number and said, “Get ready, this is going to be serious.” He took three deep breaths and answered the call. It was extremely instructive to watch him deal with a tough business situation.
 
Assistant positions: Larger and expanding companies create a pipeline of leaders by offering positions that are effectively one-third overhead and two-thirds actively producing with the oversight of a seasoned salesperson, superintendent, project manager, or controller. This is one of the most common ways to grow a management bench in times of expansion. The decision about who will coach is based on the productivity and talent of the senior leaders. Do not pair a new person with a weak manager. First impressions matter, and the newbie may be discouraged and leave the company.
 
Trading jobs: The best learning experiences often come from living in another person’s shoes. The more exposure a future leader has to all aspects of business operations, the better the leader will be. Why? Understanding the role of each department in the company will cement in their minds its importance to the overall success and efficiency of the company. As a consultant, I like to take the most troublesome supers (typically young and very good at their jobs) and put them in a sales role for a few days, or at least in the sales office, closing department, or purchasing department, with the folks they are feuding with. It is amazing how much better they work together when they realize the challenges others face. This must occur with the oversight of a skilled manager, of course.
 
Learn by doing—build a house: A rotation of roles in three-month increments is great for leaders, and participants usually end up going back to the area that interests them most. A typical rotation might start with building a house as a part-time position with the oversight of a seasoned super in conjunction with being an assistant super or warranty assistant. Based on the cycle time of the building, this experience will last from start to delivery. Next, the employee can rotate to the purchasing area and be involved with costing, take-offs, and operating systems, then move on to the design center environment, then sales or both depending on how your company manages sales, options, and upgrades. This exposure will allow them to choose the area they want to work in for the next two-to-five years. 
 
Another way to get your team on the same page is to have a house that becomes a training house for all new hires so they learn how a house is built and how their job contributes to the process. This is a very good way to promote bonds among your staff and make them feel positive for the work they do. Building homes for people is a wonderful occupation. There are leaders in some companies who don’t know the first thing about building a house. They should.
 
Business and industry seminars and conferences: As the industry recovers, it is important that your team begins to feel a part of the industry and be allowed to grow with knowledge that they can secure at industry conferences and seminars as well as webinars. Make continuous learning a part of their development and quarterly reviews. Let them come to you with ideas on how to enrich their development or, if you see seminars you know will be helpful, suggest they go. There are many specific skills that are needed and can be taught in-house or from industry experts. Continuous learning should be a way of life for your team. Some specific conferences I like are state and local home builder association expos, the NAHB Builders’ Show, and the Urban Land Institute Fall and Spring Conferences. These organizations have young leader membership rates that make them affordable for most companies.
 
General business and industry publications: Read, read, and read. Make sure your management team is reading industry publications such as Professional Builder and others. The Wall Street Journal summary page and opinion pages are essential reading on a daily basis. Why? Because we must understand what is going on within and outside our industry; it is all connected. Make sure you discuss and involve your mentees in the political economy of your local area and in our business sector at large. Much of the harm done in the last recession occurred because home building leadership was not aware of the critical changes occurring in the financial sector. Educate the next generation of builders about the importance of being aware of the political economy at the global, national, regional, state, county, and local levels. They need to know how it impacts them and take action as needed to weigh in on decisions made by elected officials. 

Taking ownership of a job

The true test of how well your mentoring efforts have been absorbed by your mentees will reveal themselves when they take direct ownership of a position such as assistant project manager and grow to project manager within one to three years. Over that period, observe how they handle tough decisions, deadlines, and resolve technical challenges.
 
If you’ve hired the right people and handled their training correctly, you may be able to put them in charge and go on vacation, or even work them into your succession plan. What a great reward for mentoring that is well done. PB
 
Noelle Tarabulski is CEO of Builder Consulting Group of Lakewood, Colo., a management consulting firm dedicated to builders and developers since 1991. She can be reached at noellet@buildertools.com.

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