Construction Leadership Insights

Accountability You Can Build Upon

A video game is teaching my sons accountability
Fortnite is a gaming phenomenon—in 2018 it reaped 2.4 billion dollars in revenue. In 2019, 250 million people across the globe have played an average six to 10 hours a week.

My sons love this addictive game, but my wife and I limit their playing time to three hours a week, one hour at a time by using an egg timer. They get a bonus 30 minutes a week if they do their chores.

(The chores get done quickly now, and I must thank Fortnite for that!)

My 13-year-old became an immediate expert tracking his two younger brothers’ playing time. He’s got that first-born son’s sense of duty (and he’s motivated to start his next turn). At a young age he’s learned how to hold others accountable.

If you’re a construction leader you know the importance of accountability. But you may not always put it to good use, it’s never too late to improve.

First, what is accountability?

Accountability is holding people responsible for their actions (and outcomes) appropriate to their authority and within their realm of responsibility.

One of my coaching clients from the construction industry told me, “I don’t get out of bed to break even every day. I want to safely make money.” That’s holding himself accountable.

Why is accountability necessary?
The author David Foster Wallace wrote:

A real leader is somebody who can help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better things than we can’t get ourselves to do on our own.

Human nature, left to is own devices, can be lazy, selfish, weak, fearful and arrogant. But with a little help it can also be diligent, sacrificial, strong, courageous and humble.

Accountability encourages us to achieve our best.

Every single construction project is a team effort.
The individual contributors impact every aspect of projects. Sometimes those impacts are hurtful. Small mistakes compound over time. Big mistakes can be devastating. All mistakes have ripple effects: on the individual; on the crew; on the project; on project partners; on the customer; and on the company. Safety mistakes can even affect an individual’s family.

To avoid mistakes and encourage us to greatness, we need accountability.
I’ve identified three crucial factors that influence its establishment.

  1. Laying the foundation for successful accountability
  2. Structuring accountability conversations
  3. Remembering the benefits of accountability

Let’s look at the first factor: Laying the foundation for successful accountability

Use the three Cs to lay the foundation

  • Capability. The Peter principle is a management concept by Laurence J. Peter, which observes that people in a hierarchy rise to their “level of incompetence”. In other words, an employee is promoted based on their success in previous jobs, until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent. 

Skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another. You may have an equipment operator who’d make a competent foreman. But he might make an incompetent superintendent when he’d have to deal with PMs from his own company, different fields or disciplines, or multiple projects.

To establish the strongest foundation of accountability among the people you lead, you must ask, “Are they capable of the work? What technical skills do they need for the task?” They may be competent technically but lack capability because they need training in leadership, communication, or morale building.

Maybe they’re allowing laziness or selfishness or weakness or fear to hold them back. If they’re not yet capable, there’s no point giving them the task. Don’t delegate and hold someone accountable for something beyond their capability.

  • Capacity. 5G is the next generation of mobile networking technology following 4G. Much like every generation before it, 5G aims to make mobile communication faster and more reliable as more and more devices go online.

You can have a 5G network but if have a 4G phone you lack the capacity to fully benefit from 5G. As a construction leader, you may have lots of new work, but if your team lacks the bandwidth to take it on, it’s unfair to hold them accountable for this fact.

Look at your most talented superintendent. Maybe he or she is running multiple projects wonderfully—overseeing foremen, interacting with project managers and project engineers. And you’ve got a sweet project well-suited to this person’s skills. But do they have the capacity for it? The answer may be no, even if they want to try. And you can’t hold them accountable for that lack of capacity.

Instead, do one of three things. You could delete projects from their bandwidth to make room for the new work. You could defer a project temporarily. Or you could delegate to another. A project could be near finish. The technical hurdles have been crossed and you could assign a different superintendent for the finishing touches.

  • As a leader your communication needs to be clear. Use the three Ts technique. Number one, know the task. Two is technique – how should it be done? This one is tricky, as you want to avoid micromanagement. Give the general parameters and empower your team member to get it done their own best way. Third is time. Construction leaders often fall short because they don’t set firm timelines. You may delegate a task but be disappointed on your next pass to find it incomplete. Give your team a clear deadline to encourage accountability.

Get the rhythm going
You’ve laid the foundation. What’s next? Establish a rhythm of accountable conversations to check on your team member’s progress. The task will dictate the best times to talk.

You might be a project manager, meeting on a Wednesday morning to go over numbers and note labor’s remaining tasks. Or you’re a foreman meeting every day to check production numbers and reinforce safety. A job site rookie or a new project engineer may need some initial handholding, and several check-ins throughout the day.

Regardless of the frequency, let’s secondly look at: Structuring accountability conversations

Here are three questions to always ask:

  • Did you do the task? Be straightforward.
  • If not, then why not? Don’t jump to conclusions—it might not be their fault. You might not have been crystal clear in your communication, so give them time to answer.
  • How can I help you? Whatever the case, find out if you can offer them any direction or help to complete the task.

You’re always checking: is the person capable of the task? Do they have the capacity for the task? And do they have clarity on the nature of the task? That way you can realistically and successfully hold them accountable.

Some construction leaders wonder, “I can do my tasks, so why can’t they?
Why can’t I just delegate tasks, and expect my team to deliver? Why do I need these conversations?”

One of my coaching clients runs a division of a construction company with hundreds of millions of dollars a year in business. He came to me after an exasperating experience with a team member, and as we talked, he realized that this person just doesn’t share the same level of urgency or decisiveness. My client would need to give this team member clear deadlines, and then he could hold him accountable. You might need to do the same.

Other leaders may think, “I’m busy, with plenty of demands on my time.
How am I going to hold all of these meetings?”

Your business depends on quality projects getting done on time. Accountability will get you there. You may need to rearrange your calendar, but make those meetings a habit, and they’ll soon help your projects run like clockwork.

Lack of accountability can sink your business
Do you have any current projects behind schedule? Do some digging and you might find a lack of accountability. If there’s a ton of rework on a project, is your team moving too quickly and not meeting your quality standards?

What about safety? The loss of a team member is the loss of a good human resource. The insurance costs, the workers’ comp claims, and in the worst situations, the negative impact on a family and its livelihood can be disastrous. Hold your foremen accountable for established safety procedures.

Why don’t we hold our teams accountable?
A fear of conflict can hold some of us back from these conversations. Or we’re overwhelmed by schedules and pending tasks. Or we might simply neglect our teams if we don’t see accountability as crucial to the bottom line. I encourage you and every leader in your organization to make accountable conversations your bread and butter. You’re not micromanaging, or playing the hero, or interfering in others’ business. You’re ensuring that you execute superior projects.

Let’s explore the last factor influencing the establishment of accountability: Remembering the benefits of accountability

You’ve laid the foundation and built accountability conversations into your day, frame the benefits in terms of “the 3 Fs”

Flashlight. Regular conversations about accountability will shine a light on you, the leader, and reveal any areas of improvement. Remember a real leader is someone who can help others overcome their laziness, selfishness, weakness and fear.

And the light shines on areas where your team might need more training, more bandwidth or clearer directions. The three obstacles that prevent you from successfully delegating and then holding that person accountable.

Filter. Do you have people in your organization who resist accountability? Cowboys or mavericks who may have technical skills but often shift the blame onto others and don’t take responsibility for project outcomes? They’re filtering themselves off your team. And you’re keeping the players who embrace accountability.

Fun. I’ll be honest with you. I have a love-hate relationship with accountability. I hate it because it exposes my laziness, selfishness, weakness and fear. But I love it because it exposes the very same things. It pushes me to do better than I could do on my own.

We’re in business to win, right? And it’s fun to be on the winning team.

For many years I’ve coached youth sports, which offer plenty of character development. But one thing I always say to my sons:

Winning is better than losing.

And you know it’s true. Winning is better than losing and accountability builds healthy teams that win.

Let’s go back to Fortnite.
My 13-year-old told me how he’d held his brothers accountable for their one hour of playing time. He’d used the timer. He’d given them the five-minute warning, and then when they were done, he made sure to get his turn.

But that very same day, he’d neglected to time himself. If you’re like my son who timed others but wasn’t timing himself, then hold yourself accountable as well.

How do you put these ideas into action?
Lay the foundation for accountability with the three Cs.

  • Are they capable?
  • Do they have the capacity?
  • And am I clearly communicating?

Get into a rhythm of accountability with people—multiple times a day if needed. Particularly with new team members. Don’t overdo it. Don’t micromanage. Don’t play the hero. Ask the three questions:

  • Did you do it?
  • If not, why not?
  • And how can I help?

If you find yourself resisting holding those accountable conversations because you hate conflict or you’re too busy, remind yourself of accountability’s benefits:

  • It’s a flashlight to reveal all areas of needed improvement.
  • It’s filters out the people who avoid accountability and keeps the people who seek it.
  • Accountable teams are winning teams and winning is fun.

Understanding and implementing accountability is one aspect of successful leadership.
To excel as a leader, further explore these ideas by checking out the Construction Leaders’ Dashboard. It’s a simple, powerful tool for leaders in construction companies of all sizes.

My clients use the dashboard to clarify the mission, the vision and the values that drive their organizations. It measures their levels of success. The key relationships they need to develop their edge. Their unique contributions that set them apart from colleagues and opportunities for development.

Click this link and download your own copy of the Construction Leaders’ Dashboard from my website.

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Construction Leaders Dashboard

Do you lack focus and forward momentum? The Construction Leaders Dashboard is a simple, powerful tool for construction company leaders. Use it to clarify what you need to do in order to succeed. It includes: Vision, Mission, Values, Edge, Intitiatives, Metrics, Key Relationships,
and Development Opportunities.

To get your copy of the dashboard, click this link