Along-standing joke in the industry says the project manager evolved as the solution to the mounds of paperwork a superintendent encounters. Today the number of contractors that do not have some semblance of a project management corps is minimal. In fact, project managers drive the operations within many firms, exchanging their image of old as the replaceable paper pusher.
Construction management and engineering programs throughout the universities of the world have developed curricula to educate and train future project leaders on everything from change order management to scheduling. However, what does the future of project management hold? Will the skills of today’s project manager be satisfactory as the complement to the field manager? Will a new model of project management be required for firms to adopt as new business models in construction arise?
Project managers became the custodians of the “business side” of the construction project, enabling the superintendents or foremen to build. What began as an office transition for many blue-collar supervisors shifted to universities as the fertile ground for growing future managers. Today many trade contractors still use “star field leaders” as a cadre of project managers. The advent of the digital age and the computer talents of many younger managers aided the evolution. For years, engineering and building construction programs equipped managers with a standard “toolbox” of basic knowledge to enter the world of construction. However, the largest criticism of this management group was its apparent lack of real-world construction knowledge. While highly unscientific in its description, many project managers could navigate the most high-tech software with reckless abandon, but could scarcely find their way around the formwork of a multistory building. The more sophisticated firms dedicated time and resources to bring the field to these engineers and managers, through on-site mentoring by more senior field managers. Other firms lacked the depth and sensibilities to grow their managers effectively.
During construction booms, it was all contractors could do to keep their projects adequately staffed. More often than not, projects were being led by greenhorns with little or no experience, learning through on-the-job training. This often led to poor office/field relations, weak client management, inadequate change order management and, on many occasions, margin erosion. If it were not for strong field supervision, many firms would have experienced more catastrophic failures.
What did the industry learn from this phenomenon? A project may be able to overcome a weak project manager, but it requires strong field leadership to be successful. If nothing else, it demonstrated the value of strong, front-line leadership. However, in an industry of aging field workers and an already apparent shortage of qualified assets, will there be a population of field managers capable and willing to lead projects in the future?
Schools and colleges have begun to stress the importance of balance in their curriculum. Practical training and genuine field experience have bolstered traditional technical subjects, such as scheduling and general construction material knowledge. While many of the core technical skills did not change in their fundamental approach, many managers learned more in the key areas of business management and hands-on constructability. Exhibit 1 illustrates the evolution that many students experienced in their educational experience. Ultimately, educators have determined that the balance most often comes in the form of project/firm management, hard/soft skill education and technical/business fundamentals. For instance, understanding a job cost report is equally as important as understanding the income statement. Simply knowing the strength of a wide-flanged steel beam was not enough — managers were expected to understand the safest erection process and how it influenced other trades. Furthermore, emphasis on the human element — managing people as well as the customer — has grown significantly. Personality-profiling systems became as important as strong résumés and reference checks. Employers have come to realize that the personal interactions their managers have with peers, subordinates, trade partners and external customers are one of their most important responsibilities.
Long after the lessons of the classroom, the firm also evolved in its approach to using the project manager. Best-of-class firms used the manager as the customer-focused arm of the business. The greatest project managers were those who best could engage customers, trade contractors, suppliers and tradespeople. The strongest managers were graded less on their technical acumen and more on their prowess with people. In a field predicated on its hard skills, it appeared that the best managers were those who understood the soft skills of psychology and sociology. In fact, industry leaders define the best project managers by their ability to communicate, plan and think like businesspeople, simultaneously, through:
- Communication. The manager has the ability to communicate to any audience and articulate an appropriate message. More importantly, the true project leader has the ability to listen and process an appropriate response.
- Planning. The manager is diligent about proactively constructing a plan balanced in realism and strategy.
- Business Acumen. The manager has an affinity for not only making money and understanding the world of finance, but also managing both internal and external customers.
The intersection of these three skill sets is defined by FMI as the “Project Leader,” as shown in Exhibit 2. While some managers may be able to effectively plan or communicate, the project leader does these in trinity.
This model is not limited to the sphere of project management. The construction world saw the emergence of true project leaders in the field. Firms that employed superintendents who took an active role in these three areas dramatically improved their performance. While these leading superintendents would hardly be confused for accountants, they understand earned value, job cost feedback and, most importantly, their connection to the customer. Today’s and tomorrow’s superintendents will not be defined simply by a limited set of construction skills and knowledge.
The integration of these newly defined roles has presented many firms with an interesting conundrum: to give project managers more real-world construction experience while providing superintendents soft and business skills. The traditional training practices of most firms are grossly inadequate to support the appropriate level of development required, especially in the face of shrunken training budgets, ailing economies and project teams stressed simply to accomplish project goals. Furthermore, the evolution of these roles is exacerbated by an aging field workforce and a distinct shortage of field leaders capable and willing to lead. It is not uncommon to hear a president or CEO lament about its firm’s inability to find good help, in particular great field leadership.
Best-of-class firms have recognized this challenge and developed a proactive plan to grow talent rather than depend on their ability to acquire “free agents.” Exhibit 3 depicts a clear trajectory.
As simple as this progression appears, the key is firm discipline. Too often firms accelerate the timetable because of personnel needs in the short term. Arguably, the greatest benefit is creating a cadre of talent that is versatile. It also allows newer associates to choose their paths, with applicable guidance from senior management, that are best-suited to their personalities, talents and long-term future. There are countless instances where college graduates gravitate towards project management because they feel this is the quicker path to the top, even when their heart screams for the field. Ultimately, this form of career pathing addresses future shortages while giving greater opportunities to future managers, estimators and superintendents. It will become commonplace in the future to see more degreed superintendents rather than traditional blue- or gray-collar workers. The key to success will lie in the firm’s ability to continue to provide platforms and growth engines for talent development.
As firms wrestle with new paradigms, such as integrated project delivery, building information modeling, public/private partnerships and modularization, the role of the project manager will not remain static. Much like professional and collegiate football offenses have redefined the role of the quarterback in the faster and more physical leagues, project managers also will adapt. There will continue to be firms that employ traditional project managers and field supervision. However, the best-of-class organizations will have a staff of nimble business managers adept at directing traffic in the field while understanding the nuances of financial management.
Tomorrow’s firms will have managers and superintendents who work in tandem, but each will need to be more technically savvy and maintain a much higher emotional IQ to enable better management of the people side of the business as well as that of the customer. Additionally, firms that have some semblance of structured development will cope with the coming scarcity of labor the industry is sure to face. Even if no one is sure of the origin of the project manager, the fittest firms of the future will not simply have project managers but true leaders in the industry.
Gregg Schoppman is a principal with FMI Corporation. He can be reached at 813.636.1259 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.