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Young Professionals Discuss Leadership and Career Advancement

A lot can be learned from industry veterans who have been there, done that, and climbed the corporate ladder. But young professionals are proving their value as construction firms battle a talent shortage and seek innovative ways to stay ahead of the competition.

Following, three up-and-comers from Associated Builders and Contractors’ (ABC) National Young Professionals program discuss how the under-40 crowd can navigate new leadership roles and bring fresh perspectives to the construction industry.

Scott Cox is director of preconstruction for Cox Fire Protection, Inc. in Tampa, Fla. His father started the company in 1984, when Cox was 2 years old. His career path included summers doing fieldwork followed by college and stints with the company in design, project management, estimating, sales and business development. Currently, he’s responsible for finding and developing strategic partnerships with owners and general contractors, as well as maintaining healthy customer relations. With about 100 employees, Cox Fire Protection installs, services and upgrades fire sprinkler, alarm and suppression systems.

Brooke Wenger is business development leader in the Hagerstown, Md., office of Triad Engineering.She “fell” into the AEC industry after graduating from college and now is responsible for locating and developingrelationships with potential business partners, generating and following up on projects leads, pursuing strategic business development and marketing goals, and assisting with marketing efforts. Triad Engineering has been in business for 40 years, with 180 employees specializing in construction inspections, laboratory testing, surveying, civil and geotechnical engineering and design, subsurface exploration, environmental assessment and remediation, and landscape architecture.

Jake Williams is vice president of Indianapolis-based Construction Planning & Management, Inc. (CPM). His dad started the company 35 years ago doing mostly public paving work; today, 70 percent is private work for multifamily, assisted living, restaurant, retail and auto dealership clients. Wanting to prove himself outside the family business, Williams went to work for Hunt Construction for a few years after college, where he was able to gain management experience as a project engineer. At CPM, he has worked through the ranks as assistant director of operations, process development coordinator and director of business development. Currently, he splits his time between the office and the field, and is president of a CPM offshoot that focuses exclusively on interior work. 

What skills and traits have helped you advance your career?
Cox: Growing up in the industry was incredibly beneficial. I spent summers learning what most people spent their first couple of years learning. Being very detail-oriented and a muti-tasker helps in my current position, where my day consists of taking on many different roles.

Wenger: The most important thing I’ve done to aid my advancement is to put myself in situations outside my comfort zone to create opportunities for growth. It’s scary, but if you don’t stretch and push yourself, it’s very easy to get comfortable, which can lead to becoming stagnant.

Williams: Attitude is the best attribute anyone can have. Early in my career, I wanted to do more than what my job description contained. So I would do what was asked of me as quickly and accurately as possible so I’d have time to learn more. Strict adherence to requirements is important, but the eagerness to be accountable for more is key.

What’s it like stepping into a management or leadership role for the first time?
Cox: Being young is sometimes a challenge when it comes to managing others who are literally twice my age. I learn patience daily and to rely heavily on my team.

Wenger: Day to day, I don’t have direct supervision over others with the exception of being the lead on proposal development for large contracts. However, I do have leadership roles through my organizational involvements as the incoming president of Society for Marketing Professional Services Central Pennsylvania and chair of the young professionals group for ABC’s Cumberland Valley Chapter. Being elected to these positions is exciting, but definitely a little intimidating. I’m still learning how to not be intimidated by C-suite interactions because I’m not one of them…yet.

Williams: I was thrown into leadership due to the fact I wanted to take on more than I probably should have. I’ve learned it can be hard for veteran employees to let go of things; they’re not used to somebody doing something without being told.

Where do you go to learn more about being a good leader?
Cox: I have a mentor I meet with fairly regularly. He has been incredibly beneficial to teaching me about specific situations. Cox Fire Protection is also heavily involved in ABC’s Florida Gulf Coast Chapter and the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. ABC National’s Peer Groups are also a great resource on specific job roles.

Wenger: Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to have management teams that understand the value of mentorship. I’m also active in industry organizations that provide educational and professional development programing, as well as networking opportunities. Becoming active not just as an attendee, but by joining a committee or taking a leadership position, has provided the most value.

Williams: For me, good leadership was learned from seeing what not to do and trying very hard to be different. I want fast, accurate and fully committed action—not just sitting around talking about something, which is what I’ve seen others do. With that said, the ABC National Young Professionals group has been great because I can communicate ideas with people I don’t compete with and who have similar needs. I can talk to those who have beta-tested what I’m considering, which makes it easier and faster for me to take more confident action. Sometimes being in a position of leadership is lonely and can cause hesitation. Knowing there are incredibly gifted people in other areas of the country who are available to talk has helped me grow.

What’s the best leadership-related advice you’ve heard?
Cox: Do the right thing, even if it costs more money.

Wenger: Most important to me is to do what you say you’re going to do. I’ve found it’s so easy to over-commit because of all the opportunities presented, so if I say I’m going to do it, I manage my time to be certain I follow through. I’m also learning to delegate when it’s appropriate. 

Williams: Who’s checking the checker? For example, if the operations director is checking the project manager, who is checking the operations director? I’m also a big believer in singular accountability. If someone sends an email to four people and copies two more, who’s accountable to follow up? You have to give directives to one specific person. Accountability goes hand in hand with checking the checker, and both tie into efficiency.

What management tactics work best for young professionals?
Cox: Employ people who are smarter than you and heed their advice. Be the leader of the ship, but don’t hesitate to ask for direction.

Wenger: Learning how to break down the communication barrier is one of the key factors to merging current leadership with young professionals. With all the emerging forms of communication, there’s a wide spectrum of what is effective for each individual.

Williams: I like to take a hands-off approach, but with constant accessibility. It promotes independence while maintaining control. Efficiency and respecting each other’s time is huge. Meetings are your worst enemy if they’re run inefficiently. You must adhere to the time set aside and the agenda at hand. Also, I don’t want to have a meeting until I’m available to enact change. It’s discouraging and a huge waste of time to come up with a whole bunch of ideas we can’t execute. I can’t stand non-action.

What can young professionals bring to the table in a construction company?
Wenger: In addition to a renewed energy, young professionals bring creativity and a new perspective to an aging industry. They are essential to closing the generational gap, including talent and leadership.

Williams: Obvious needs are technology and the ability to transfer information and data quickly and accurately. But a more abstract contribution is a vibrant resurgence and energy. I’ve noticed veteran employees love to share knowledge. If you pair enthusiastic listeners with wise veterans, they both come away from the experience with renewed energy for their career. It makes everybody feel good.

What kind of leaders does the construction industry need going forward?
Cox: Experience isn’t everything, but it is huge. Young leaders are great and needed; however, I would encourage them to pursue the advice of those with more experience.

Wenger: Regardless of the industry, I think leaders need to inspire, influence and teach others.

Williams: The industry needs leaders who are detail-oriented and do not succumb to the world’s “need it now” culture. They shouldn’t be afraid to say no. Everyone is harmed if you agree to meet deadlines and then deliver a sub-par bid, answer or report. You end up taking on a bunch of risk. Be honest with owners about how long it takes to do something right. I’ve seen a big difference between the people who know they don’t know something and take time to learn, versus those who assume they do know something and move too fast to double check. I think young professionals, myself included, should slow down a bit and observe.  

ABC National Young Professionals
Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) supports the growth of young professionals employed at member companies by offering opportunities to network, build relationships, expand their skills and advance their careers. Educational resources include seminars, conferences, webinars and peer groups, as well as access to political advocacy tools.

Membership costs $50 per year and is restricted to ABC member company employees under the age of 40. For more information, visit youngprofessionals.abc.org or email youngprofessionals@abc.org.

Also, save the date for the young professionals leadership development track during ABC’s Leadership Week, Nov. 10-12 in San Diego. The two-day course will focus on communication skills, relationship building, team building, how to inspire innovation and how to build a foundation to become a successful leader. Event information and registration is available at leadership.abc.org.

Joanna Masterson is senior editor of Construction Executive. For more information, email masterson@abc.org, visit constructionexec.com or follow @ConstructionMag.


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