EVERY ONE OF YOUR EMPLOYEES PLAYS A CRITICAL role. But perhaps the most challenging positions to manage and retain are your site superintendents. Without them, building simply won't happen. Supers are notoriously independent. When you ask one to describe the things he loves about his job, either he'll look at you with eyebrow raised, or he'll use words like “freedom” and “being my own boss.”

That desire for independence, says Gene Swang, president of the Houston division of David Weekley Homes, should be encouraged, not crushed.

“That's one of the two big things that attract people to this career,” he says. “The other one is their interest in learning. It surprised us to learn how much these guys want mileage—especially the younger generation. They want to learn everything about building houses.”

So what are some of the keys to good superintendent management? Knowing the good reputation of David Weekley's managerial style, we asked Swang to break it down for us.

Peer Loyalty Learning won't take place automatically, Swang notes. You have to have clear systems in place which encourage superintendents to improve.

Swang says that at David Weekley Homes superintendents don't plateau at hiring. Instead their builder status can rise within the company—along with their pay. The company has created a sort of in-house guild, in which superintendents rise from the “rank” of builder to lead builder to senior builder, with commensurate pay hikes.

“It typically takes about a year to a year and a half between each one of those titles,” he says. “We sell the fact that there is a career path in this business that goes beyond the pay increases. The most important thing is the recognition by their peers. And we may ask the more senior builders to mentor new builders. That becomes part of their job.”

That kind of personal involvement encourages superintendents to stick around, even when the pay might be better at competing firms. But retention is a full-time job in these competitive times, Swang says. These in-house promotions are just a part of a larger package that ultimately makes for happy supers.

Jerks And Perks Not surprisingly, one of the best things going for managers such as Swang is the bad past experience their superintendents have had at other companies. Many of them have worked for firms where managers treated them like chattel.

“Some of our people have actually left here and come back. They've learned that a lot of companies want you to work six or seven days a week and have a hatchet held over your head, waiting for you to make one mistake. It's a culture of fear out there, instead of a culture of success. We're OK if you fail, but we want you to fail forward, and your mistakes should be original.”

Another adjustment Swang has made comes directly from the short list of superintendent frustrations—relieving them of unnecessary or redundant paperwork.

“These guys want to be building homes. They don't want to be filling out paperwork,” he notes. “For example, when they would make an extra purchase order, they used to have to send in the cost code, the item code, and a description of the item, by writing it down and faxing it to us. Now, all they have to do is call on their cell phone and say ‘I need five 10-foot 2x4s down here at such and such jobsite.' We've made it simpler for them. There's stuff that still has to be done, of course, like EPA and OSHA reports, but we can limit what we load on to them.”

Hiring: Job One Even the best project manager, however, may not be able to turn a superintendent with the personality of a lump of clay into an overachieving Adonis. That's why the prehire screening process is critical.

“We really try to look for someone who is focused on other people, not strictly focused on himself,” Swang explains. “That's because customers need to be treated gently—because they're hard to come by. We do a psychological profile of each candidate and talk about who we are and what we stand for. We also try to have them spend some time with somebody doing the job, to see how they fit in.”

New recruits, fresh out of college, have been coming on pretty strong, Swang says. He likes their enthusiasm and their eagerness to learn. But, he notes, they also have to know how to build homes inside and out before they can start to lead. “We will insist that they spend some time on the job,” he says, “and most of them understand the importance of that. They want to know what they are talking about.”

With about 40 full-time superintendents managing 500 homes in a typical year, Swang says David Weekley Homes is going strong. The national brand is so strong, in fact, that last year the entire company went on a vacation retreat to Hawaii, courtesy of David Weekley. Now that's the kind of perk that wins hearts and minds.

“We also have a lot of the more traditional benefits, 401(k) plans, profit sharing, and health plans,” Swang adds.

“We're demanding of our supers, but they know what is expected of them. They want to be part of a team. That's very important to them. And we make sure that happens.”

Top 10 Traits Uncovered The best superintendents share certain winning personality traits. Here's a short list to consider when looking for that ideal person.

  • Integrity. A good super always exhibits a high level of integrity. If you get a red flag on a candidate's level of integrity, think twice about the hire.
  • Scheduling. With a superintendent often juggling anywhere from five to 25 homes at a time, a haphazard approach to scheduling can spell disaster. Good supers must coordinate trades, suppliers, inspections, and deliveries. The best supers tend to be superorganized.
  • Follow-up. When a good super agrees to fix a problem or call an upset customer, you know it will happen. Look for cues to how a candidate's behavior connects to his words.
  • Working the plan. Avoid superintendents who like to shoot from the hip. In today's building environment, there's no room for winging it. A good super will know exactly how to get from point A to point Z and the shortest route to get back on course when forced to deviate from the plan.
  • Managing time. Another aspect of a good planner is being prepared for the unexpected. A tight schedule with no wiggle room invites trouble. Wise time managers leave buffers in their scheduling to address unexpected problems and emergencies.
  • Passion. This intangible trait often separates great superintendents from good ones. The great ones love the process of home building. They take pride in the homes coming together from the ground up. In many cases, a passionate superintendent with less talent or experience can make up for his shortcomings with enthusiasm that carries over to the entire crew.
  • Proactive, not reactive. The pro-active super looks to constantly improve his own performance. Rather than rushing around to cover building materials when it starts to rain, a good super checks the weather forecast and plans interior work for the day.
  • Professionalism. Because superintendents have a great deal of face-to-face time with the public, you want them to present a positive image for the company. Such simple things as wearing neat clothing may be important to clients. Is his paperwork readable and organized? What kind of body language does he convey? Image is important, and the best supers understand that fact.
  • Respect for people. It's easy to become frustrated on the jobsite. You have language barriers with immigrant workers, demanding clients, and picky inspectors. But a good superintendent keeps his composure and treats everyone with respect. The key to this trait is the ability to keep business issues separate from personality conflicts. That way, the issues stay in the foreground of any discussion, not the personality clashes among workers or with the super.
  • Listening and clear communication. As is true of any profession, good listeners make the best managers. A smart super will listen to the needs of workers and the concerns of home buyers, analyze the information, and make an informed decision. Equally important, he has to communicate exactly what he means, without vagueness or uncertainty.
  • Source: “10 Habits Of Highly Successful Superintendents” Seminar by Steve Mcgee, Unify International, And Greg Lorenzetti, Morrison Homes, 2004

    Difficult Employees Exposed Identify the source of employee friction before you make matters worse with the wrong response.

    As a builder, you're used to fixing things. If a door sticks, you adjust the threshold. If your nail gun jams, you apply lubricant and pry out the bent fastener. But fixing “broken” employees requires a little more finesse. You need to use psychological tools to pry issues into the open, drill into the heart of the crisis, and, as a last resort, lop off the dead wood.

    Paul Thornton, a management consultant in Springfield, Mass., and author of The Triangles of Management and Leadership, divides problem employees into three categories: the aggressor, the victim, and the rescuer. “When an aggressor beats up on a weaker person, that person begins to play the victim,” Thornton notes. “Then a rescuer steps in to try and save the day. It's a triangle that goes on and on.” Here, he offers strategies for dealing with each type.

    Aggressors. These people tend to be demanding and loud, and have poor listening skills. They run roughshod over the concerns and protests of quieter employees. They also tend to see the world in black and white, win or lose terms. The same goes for relationships. They believe others are either with them or against them. They often treat people with condescension and make rude comments or hurtful sarcastic remarks.

    Victims. This next player in the employee axis of evil causes trouble as well. Victims, described by one Harvard research team as “BMW” people (bitch, whine, and moan), blame others for all of their problems. As a result, they lower the morale of everyone around them, waste time, and lower productivity. “Because they're perceived as whiners,” says Thornton, “nobody will listen to them. And that just makes matters worse.”

    Rescuers. Endowed with the admirable trait of compassion for others, and the less admirable trait of needing to be liked and appreciated constantly, rescuers try to save victims from their hopeless plight. In doing so, they avoid all forms of confrontation, so conflicts are not resolved. They also tend to over commit to helping others, at the expense of not getting their own work done. Result: a bottleneck in productivity.

    The Solutions Fortunately, breaking the triangle of employee trouble can happen. Not surprisingly, the same techniques often work for all three types. They include:

  • Listen to the person's point of view and respond thoughtfully.
  • Make the person feel valued or appreciated.
  • Describe the three roles of the triangle and ask them if they see themselves in one of those roles.
  • Indicate changes that you think might help.
  • Ask them to commit to one or two changes.
  • “Some conflict and debate in the workplace is good,” adds Thornton. “You need to have ground rules so one person can't talk all the time. People don't need to like each other, but they do need to work with some sort of cooperation.”

    Thornton says that increasing workloads in the corporate world has made the formation of troubled triangles more common. To forestall this, he says, workers need to be allowed to prioritize, to get critical things done first.

    “Otherwise you can cross the line between looking at your workload as a challenge and getting angry,” he explains. “Employees really need to focus on what the customer needs. What is the customer's top priority? Then line up their own priorities with that goal.”

    Dodging Bullets Learn to recognize and diffuse unbalanced employees before they come to work armed for World War III.

    What's the leading cause of death for women in the work-place in America? Not electrocution. Not even heart attacks. Homicide. That's right. And according to the Harvard Business Review, it's the second leading cause for men. More than 1,000 people are killed each year at work. Most of those deaths happen during the course of a violent crime, such as robbery of a convenience store, attacks on taxi drivers, etc., but “a few dozen happen as a result of disgruntled colleagues each year.”

    Recognizing a potentially dangerous employee is the first step. Some of the stereotypes hold true—people who “snap” tend be white, middle-aged men. They tend to be loners. They tend to work too much and have too few hobbies. But don't assume that because a worker exhibits these signs, he (or she) is an automatic threat. Few workers ever reach the point of violence, especially when managers act wisely to diffuse the anger.

    That diffusion can be accomplished if you:

  • Don't treat the person like a ticking time bomb. Persecuting him or her for a violent outburst, for example, could send the employee further into darkness.
  • Reach out to the person to “affirm his or her worth as employee,” including inviting him or her to social outings.
  • But the best approach, according to researchers, is to “humanize the entire workplace,” not focus on the “odd-balls, geeks, and misfits.” Ultimately, the best way to prevent worker violence is to create a work environment where civility, respect, decency, and worker satisfaction are a critical part of the bottom line.

    Source: Harvard Business Review