Finding and Keeping Good Field Leaders

Field supervisors, project managers and superintendents represent an outsized slice of the struggle to attract and retain talented people. There are two major challenges to finding and keeping good field leaders.

Ethan Cowles

Field supervisors, project managers and superintendents represent an outsized slice of the struggle to attract and retain talented people. There are two major challenges to finding and keeping good field leaders. The first is the overall construction talent shortage; the second is the trend toward being asked to do too much too soon. Overwork and a lack of skills training and career support are huge issues in construction. Research shows that stress and burnout are more pervasive among less experienced construction workers and that professional development is the antidote.

Most firms recognize the importance of talent development, but many of them overlook the need for field staff to hone their business skills. Field supervisors are in a position of leadership and need experience and training to plan projects, prevent rework and keep crews productive. Both formalized skills training and systemic processes that foster learnings have an outsized impact on project performance. 

Pre-Planning Involvement
Often, field supervisors only come into the office when they are between projects. This is a missed opportunity because when field leaders are involved in project planning, they can assess the logistics of mobilization and document what they need based on the scope of work. Once they have been brought into the loop, field supervisors can visit the job site and consider their manpower, tools, equipment, materials and additional information needs. 

On job site visits, field supervisors should consider:
•    Access to the site for delivery trucks and machinery.
•    Traffic patterns, school zones, foot traffic and neighborhood particulars.
•    Utility locations, locates and overhead restrictions.
•    Locations for parking and portable toilets.
•    Location and size of laydown yards.
•    Status of project: Is it/will it be ready to mobilize?

Following the site visit, a field leader should:
•    Create a list of tools and equipment needed.
•    Set out the first set of goals and short-interval plans. What do we need to be productive for day one, hour one?
•    Provide input/confirmation on budget and schedule.
•    Any questions or concerns prior to mobilization.

Early involvement lifts productivity, profitability and overall project success. Field leaders with budget management, performance tracking, mentoring, time management and other project management training can do a better job of lifting overall performance.

Skills Training and Mentorship
Previous generations of field leaders learned through on-site experience and may not have had formal training. Now, with a shortage of experienced field leaders, people are being asked to lead without the experience they may have had in the past. Building the right skills in your next generation of field leaders requires intentionality.

Start by assessing your employees’ skills and competencies. Define the minimum requirements for roles and what is needed to meet or exceed those expectations. Next, measure these skills and offer resources to support them.

Creating a learning lab for younger project managers exposes them to complex projects and operations. This builds confidence and can reduce burnout. Formal mentoring arrangements enable knowledge transfer and allow more staff members to take ownership of projects. 

Invest in Field Leaders or Risk Losing Them
Field leaders, supervisors and project managers understand projects better than anyone else. No matter how finely tuned the communication channels, no one knows where a project stands unless someone in the field is tracking its performance. Field leaders touch almost all aspects of a job and shoulder a significant share of project risk. They are at risk of burnout, being poached and/or leaving the industry. Investing in their skills isn’t just a project imperative; it can help you win the game.

Companies that invest in field supervisors can lower business risk by building a deep pipeline of strong talent, enhance their ability to execute on projects, increase employee engagement and organizational loyalty, and improve field leaders’ ability to take on greater responsibility. Only then can individuals reach their peak potential as leaders, understand their leadership effectiveness through feedback and coaching, and learn how to improve their leadership performance. 

Ethan Cowles, partner, FMI’s Performance Consulting, helps labor-intensive contractors become more effective and financially successful. Reach him at