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Stewardship, resilience and fairness: Defining modern construction leadership

Evan Saunders
Stewardship, resilience and fairness: Defining modern construction leadership
VANCOUVER REGIONAL CONSTRUCTION ASSOCIATION — President of Maxwell Floors Richard Wagner, Vancouver Regional Construction Association president Donna Grant and CEO of the Vancouver Island Construction Association Rory Kulmala at the VRCA’s 2023 Construction Leadership Forum. Grant said after years of uncertainty in the industry caused by COVID-19 and other issues, resilience has emerged as one of the most important qualities a good leader can bring to their team.

In an industry as ever-changing as construction, the methods and modes of yesteryear are not always the best answer.

At the Vancouver Regional Construction Association’s (VRCA) 2023 Construction Leadership Forum, some of the industry’s prominent members discussed the qualities that define a good construction leader in 2023, from optimism, resilience, fairness and stewardship.

Adrian Edge, multi-family sales manager with Innotech Windows and Doors, said stewardship is an important quality in a modern construction leader and one he often hears other industry members mention.

“We need to be good partners, first and foremost. We owe each other the trust to ensure we can go through a project, work well with each other and accomplish what we set out to do,” Edge said.

With a large portion of the construction industry set to retire, he said stewardship now isn’t just about the immediate effect on the industry but also about shaping what the culture will look like over the next several decades as new generations enter the fold.

“It’s really basic things like treating each other with respect and all that Golden Rule type talk,” said Edge.

But as the world gets increasingly digital, it can be difficult to retain the interpersonal finesse that makes stewardship valuable, meaning leaders need to commit to embodying those values.

“I spend four or five hours behind a screen every day. You lose a lot of the human connection that is so vital. The best thing you can do is show up, talk to each other and deal with your problems.”

Steve McConnell, vice-president with InsureBC, noted construction leaders can learn from the industry’s past approach to competition in terms of fairness and ethics.

“The big thing we’ve gone away from is fairness, openness and competition,” McConnell said. “I’ve been in the business for a long time and in the early days there was a code of ethics among contractors, particularly around bid shopping.

“It’s become really common among general contractors to shop pricing on subtrades or even to crush subtrades for no reason.”

McConnell said this overly aggressive culture may be a result of the lack of prompt payment legislation, but said it truly comes down to the qualities industry leaders bring to their companies.

“We need to have the fairness come back into the business and a code that people follow. Because even when you talk about the Community Benefit Agreements people are trying to game the system and that just doesn’t end well,” he said.

“It puts us in a cycle of conflict.”

McConnell said introducing a code of ethics as a requirement to be a part of B.C.’s construction associations could be a solution to this issue.

President of the VRCA, Donna Grant, said in recent years the value of resilience has become clear.

“I think leadership has to keep the teams bonded and keep them hopeful,” Grant said.

COVID-19, wildfires, floods, labour shortages, supply chain issues ― all these issues and more have left the industry on their toes “waiting to see what comes next,” she said.

“We don’t want to lose people because it’s just gotten too hard and they decide to go do something else. We’re a strong industry and we always find a way to band together and get through tough times like we did during the pandemic.

“Companies who were fierce competitors were banding together to figure out how they can work safely. With the War in Ukraine, supply chain issues, inflation, an impending recession, leadership needs to be from people who can keep everyone hopeful.”

CEO of the Vancouver Island Construction Association Rory Kulmala said more than ever, a good construction leader needs to be aware of what their employees are going through.

“Someone who is mindful of people’s circumstances and realities that can make our industry a challenge to work in. Whether it’s health and welfare, whether it’s the economics and cost; I think being mindful in a positive way can help influence people who are struggling or tone down panic,” Kulmala said, adding a certain level of calm stoicism is essential for a modern leader.

“’A steady ship weathers many seas.’ My old navy adage. We don’t want bullies; we don’t want people that have millions of agendas and spread and peel their teams in a bunch of different directions.”

Sarah Silva, vice-president of real estate with the Nch’ḵay̓ Development Corporation, said Indigenous construction leaders need to focus on strengthening First Nations with good investment.

“It’s really about building capacity of our community, building high quality buildings and really being able to support the industry but also our people.”

Follow the author on Twitter @JOC_Evan.

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