Lessons in Leadership

This winter was the first time in 40 years that I didn’t spend the holidays and New Year’s with friends and family. Instead, I spent time in Peru as a tourist and one week helping to build a community center an hour north of Lima. The Seattle Times has a great article about the project. If you have some money to donate I would encourage you to donate to the Lake Union Crew Outreach Foundation.

This blog article is about a lesson in leadership that I learned helping build the community center. In watching the lead engineer work and manage the effort, the thing that made the largest impression in making the project successful was her constant involvement in every component of the construction. The project was run as an 8 week relay with new people coming on and off the team every week. The factors that made the project feel successful were directly attributable to the following:

1) Leadership by Example -- The project lead was involved with every element of the construction when she wasn’t helping coordinating the volunteer’s effort. Whether it was lifting every bucket of water into the concrete mixer to make sure the concrete pour was going correctly, or coaching the pouring of the concrete foundation she was always present and visible during the critical portions of the project.  I was doubly impressed that there was no job too small. At the end of the day, she would walk the site and carry lumber, or move rebar to the correct location so that it would be available for the next day’s work.

2) Tolerance for mistakes and re-work — One day we stacked a row of concrete blocks in a row 80 feet long and 5 feet high, next to the wall where they would be placed. Unfortunately, the blocks were set in an unstable pattern, some of the blocks were resting on their sides (making them more susceptible to cracking), and they were 4 inches too close to the wall meaning the scaffolding couldn’t move along the wall to place the blocks.  The only solution was to re-stack the blocks. She started the re-stacking and trained the team of 5 on how to fix the problem. Two hours later the re-stacking was done, none of us would make the same block stacking mistake again. As unfortunate as it was that the mistake happened, the only solution was to re-do it and show us how to fix it.

3) Trust and verify — After everyone had left the site, I watched her wander through the interior of the empty structure with a measuring tape verifying the interior plans would actually work for subdividing the space within the structure. I jokingly asked her if she was seeing the forest through the trees, and she replied “Yes.”  Her experience helped her visualize the internal space, and come up with some last minute revisions that would make the site more suitable for its intended usage, and not what was just laid out on the sheet of paper.  A second example would be that she would delegate portions of the project to experienced and trusted team members, but later walk through and confirm or have adjustments made based on what would work best for the work site.

4) Progress — The beauty of working on construction project is that every day you can see the structure change and get closer to completion. One day there would be no roof, and the next there would be a roof installed. One day there would be a mesh of rebar on the floor, and the next day you would have poured a complete concrete floor. Every day the masonry wall would climb steadily higher, and the window and door frames would get placed.  A recent Harvard Business School study of the notes of 12,000 workers the biggest motivator for keeping workers engaged was progress. Progress was more important than interpersonal support, instrumental support, collaboration or “important work.” Simply making progress kept the team engaged.

There are many valid critiques about the project engineer’s leadership methods. Her communication style chafes individuals who want more collaborative exchanges. That said, no one could deny that the progress of the project was proceeding as smooth as it could using a volunteer work force, sub-standard equipment, and dusty/sandy conditions. In looking at the lessons of the project, it is not hard to see how these analogues work just as well for leadership when writing software and building companies.

Addendum: “It Takes a Team”

The project engineer and lead had the responsibility for delivering a large facility in 8 weeks of work using volunteer labor. She had the support of the Lake Union Crew Outreach Foundation who helped do the fundraising, teams who contacted and scheduled the volunteers for weeks, architects who designed the building, runners who helped coordinate construction resources in Peru, and a core team of members who had built similar structures with her in Lesotho. Her responsibility was making sure that the physical construction of the building and the supporting terraces were done on schedule.  The volunteers were people who self selected for the project. They varied in age and ability from 7 to 60+ years, and with no experience working in construction to having worked with the lead on prior similar construction projects.  The volunteers included up to 24 English speakers and 20-30 Peruvian volunteers who spoke smatterings of English. The volunteer experience included more than just construction, as it also involved shared meals, conversation and singing, but those stories are for a different venue.

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