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Team of Rivals: How to Make Our Industry Thrive
By Steve Lindauer, TAUC CEO
Note: This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of The Construction User. CLICK HERE to read the entire issue online.
As I write this in late September, the NFL regular season is finally underway. Now that the summer training camps and pre-season games are finished, the mood is different in the stadiums. I don’t see many relaxed faces in the stands or on the sidelines. Fans and coaches alike understand that it’s time to get serious. Each pass, touchdown or fumble will determine who makes it to the playoffs and, ultimately, the Super Bowl. Practice is over. From here on out, everything counts.
Of course, few of us can truly understand the pressure of trying to win a Super Bowl. But the path to success in the union construction and maintenance industry runs parallel to the path to success in the NFL. The environments may be different, but the principles are the same: in order to win on the gridiron or on the jobsite, you must have unrivaled focus and intensity.
Look at the head coaches prowling the sidelines. They don’t allow themselves to be distracted by screaming fans. They are locked in and focused. Their powers of concentration are off the charts. A UFO could land in the end zone during a fourth-and-one situation and they probably wouldn’t even notice.
The same is true for the elite players in the league. Throughout the season they must endure a constant barrage of questions from reporters, harsh criticisms from sports radio hosts and never-ending pressure from fans to sign autographs and pose for pictures – all while trying to prepare for the next game. The temptations can be overwhelming at times, but the true greats know that if they allow themselves to get distracted and start thinking about the wrong things, it will lead to disaster both on and off the field. Sound familiar to anyone who’s ever worked on a $100 million outage?
However, there’s an even bigger challenge every NFL player and coach must confront, a set of rivals more dangerous and powerful than anything they’ll face on the field: their own teammates and colleagues.
An NFL team is a paradox. On one hand, it’s an elite unit of like-minded professionals all focused on the same goal (winning). On the other hand, it’s a collection of individuals with personal and often competing self-interests. Three or four quarterbacks battle one another during summer camp in order to be named the regular-season starter. Running backs do the same thing – as well as cornerbacks, defensive backs and kickers. Can you blame them? The difference between being a first-string and third-string player can amount to millions of dollars, or whether or not you even make the team.
The same dynamic is present in team management. Show me an assistant coach, and I’ll show you a guy who probably thinks he can do a better job than the current head coach. Everyone is always jockeying for position, looking to move ahead.
And yet each Sunday afternoon during fall and winter, we expect these mismatched collections of egos and attitudes to work together as a single seamless unit and perform. But not just perform – win.
Succeeding in Spite of Ourselves
Because of its tripartite structure, the union construction and maintenance industry often functions more like a team than a traditional niche business. Our contractors, unions and owner-clients are uniquely interconnected and face many of the exact same perils as an NFL franchise. Let me try and count the internal rivalries in our own backyard:
Contractors versus unions: Both want to succeed, but have very different ideas of what success means…and how to achieve it.
Contractors versus other contractors: Pure competition, with each contractor trying to grab the next big project.
Unions versus unions: “My work versus your work.” Enough said.
Contractors versus owners: Battling over terms, money, deadlines, change orders, etc.
Owners versus owners: At the macro level, a never-ending war over market position, territories and stock prices.
Did I leave any out? Probably, but you get my point.
A good NFL coach understands his team’s internal rivalries and works to ensure they don’t negatively impact performance when it counts – on game day. The problem is, our industry doesn’t have a single “coach.” That responsibility falls on all of us – from the CEO of a nationwide contracting company to the local union business manager. In a sense, we are all coaches and leaders of one kind or another. No one has the luxury of “just” being a role player.
Look at safety, for instance. We constantly tell craftworkers that they need to be cognizant of not just their own safety, but that of others around them. We empower them to speak up and point out a safety concern even if it’s not in their immediate work area. We tell them not to be hesitant to tell a co-worker (or even a supervisor) that they’re not tied off properly.
As you watch the games on Sunday afternoons, I hope you’ll keep this thought in mind. Every time a quarterback throws a perfect spiral into the end zone or a receiver makes a next-to-impossible catch with defenders crawling all over him, you’re witnessing two triumphs, one physical and one mental. You see, the quarterback can’t throw that perfect spiral if he’s thinking about the second-stringer standing on the sidelines waiting to take his job. And I guarantee the receiver will fumble the ball if his mind is dwelling on a big shoe endorsement deal rather than the route he’s supposed to run. In order to succeed, both individually and as a team, they have chosen to set aside these distractions. They have chosen to focus on what really matters, both in the immediate moment, at the “micro” level, and in the big picture at the “macro” level.
We talk a lot about growing our industry and opening inroads into lucrative new markets where our presence is currently limited – the Gulf Coast and Marcellus/Utica regions, to name a couple. Those are great goals, and we should definitely focus on them. But no matter how great a strategy we come up with, it won’t mean anything unless our entire team is focused on executing that strategy no matter what. That means letting go of traditional rivalries and decades-old rancor. It means setting aside the mistrust that previous generations thrived on and viewing the people you work with as partners instead of adversaries. It means replacing a spirit of petty competition with one of mature cooperation.
A coach can draw up a brilliant play on the chalkboard. But if the players are concentrating on their own internal rivalries – spending their energy on small battles rather than conserving their strength to fight in the big war – they might as well not even take the field.
It’s fourth-and-one. What are you focusing on?