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  • Writer's pictureTristan Wilson

Good division manager, bad division manager

tl;dr: Good division managers get stuff done the right way. Bad division managers: not so much.

I like construction business divisions because they break companies down into smaller pieces by geography, work type, etc. This empowers each unit to own their results, gives them a unique identity, and promotes healthy competition. Let’s call the people in charge of these units division managers.

Good division managers meet or exceed a reasonable annual plan in profit and revenue. They “own” their division and take full responsibility for the safety, quality, people, and P&L results. Good division managers know what is happening on their jobs and “trust but verify” by looking at work and data with their own two eyes. They act with integrity and embody the company values. Good division managers have earned the respect of their people in the field and office. When they call Field Managers, the Field Managers do not make a wincing face because “That ***hole is bugging me again”. Instead, the Field Managers grin and say “What’s up boss?”. Good division managers listen to and seek to understand field and personnel issues brought to their attention with some empathy. They say please and thank you. They laugh at funny jokes. They are someone you would want your niece or nephew to work for.

Bad division managers don’t hit their plan. They have a lot of excuses: The jobs were fading before I took over, we’re short handed because we don’t pay enough, our PM’s are inexperienced, competition is brutal, or I told them to do it. Bad division managers don’t get that this is a people business and folks can see it like a pink flamingo in the mud that they are driven mainly by personal aspirations. Bad division managers procrastinate and overreact to small problems. They get dragged down rabbit holes and do not manage their time well. You have to constantly ask them: Where are we at on this? They are a pain in the ass to deal with whether you’re an owner, subcontractor, manager, field employee, receptionist, or flight attendant.

Good division managers hold their teams accountable to high performance standards. They delegate more than seems normal. Wins are celebrated publicly and problems are addressed individually. They focus the team on safe, high quality, and profitable work. You are constantly pulling people from their division to be promoted and help in other departments. They don’t angrily yell like college football coaches on the sidelines. They steadily handle issues (bad people that need to be let go, employee complaints, safety incidents, subcontractors in default, owner mad and won’t close out the job, failed material tests, change order negotiations stalled) FAST and never procrastinate, even if it means they have to give up some ground. They are the Mariano Rivera of construction: Closers.

Bad division managers let problems pile up because they are too worried about being right to have a meaningful negotiation, are lazy, or don’t like confrontation.

Finally, good division managers excel in collaboration with their peers. They see the big company picture and share crews, equipment, and resources with others. The likeliest predictor of success after hitting the plan is their capacity for teamwork. When division managers adopt this cooperative approach, they effortlessly outperform rivals. This progression sees Project Managers ascend to division leaders, Field Engineers step into Project Management roles, and Field Managers rise to Superintendent positions. The formula is proven; it demands consistent effort. Nobody is perfect. Adding just one new habit each week will add up. Small habits change the game over time.

Habits of Good Division Managers - A Checklist

Daily Habits

  • Practice extreme ownership!

  • Review and comment on:

    • Job cost reports (daily P&L).

    • Plant/material/trucking reports.

    • Quality control reports.

    • Safety reports.

    • Every bid that goes out the door

  • Phone calls or quick check-ins with every direct report.

  • Prompt email, text, and phone call replies.

Weekly Habits

  • Plan the week the week before, and have a personal accountability system that involves writing things down and getting things done.

  • Weekly Team meeting on Safety, Cost, Crew Schedule, Plant Schedule, Bid Schedule, Equipment Reports, etc.

  • Get eyes on work for at least 4 hours across job sites and plants, preferably with other team members on a rotating basis. Buy lunch at roadside diners.

  • Hold 1:1s with their direct reports where the other person does most of the talking.

  • Work on recruiting.

  • Read and send interesting articles to the team.

  • Seek feedback from the team: what can I do to better support you?

Monthly Habits

  • See every crew and shake every hand (including night work: this builds lots of respect). Know everyone by first name.

  • Implement employee appreciation and rewards systems (e.g. crew of the month, employee of the month). Makes a huge difference.

  • Check out the competition’s work.

  • Review job cost report (MTD, YTD, JTD) and cost to complete for every job.

  • Review final WIP report and P&L and send comments to the team.

  • Write a monthly update to their management team detailing how things went, what’s coming up this month, what keeps them up at night, and shouting out anyone who is crushing it.

  • Have a monthly book club meeting.

Quarterly Habits

  • Fun team outings.

  • Face to face meetings/lunch with key project owners, subs, suppliers, and FOB clients.

  • Employee satisfaction surveys.

  • Review career plans with direct reports.

  • Takes vacation (real vacation) and encourages others to do the same.

Annual Habits

  • Hits plan.

What’s overrated:

Education, technical degrees (sorry but it’s true), spreadsheet pivot tables, years of experience.


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