Leadership: Foremost Feature of Effective Foremen

Traditionally, when electrical contractors (ECs) needed supervisors to manage work crews and serve as their company’s contact person on work sites, they promoted their best journey-level electricians into the foreman position and then, maybe, sent them off to a seminar on cost accounting or job scheduling. But there is a stronger tradition in electrical contracting that should inspire us to question the foreman-selection tradition—ceaseless, unrelenting change.

In addition to ongoing changes in technology and techniques, changes in the marketplace and the business environment continually affect the definition and scope of our services. Since ECs are always looking for ways to do things better in the face of constant change, perhaps it is time to rethink the role of the electrical supervisor/foreman and, in particular, how we select people for this very important job.

I want to make it clear that I support electricians rising through the managerial ranks. That’s how I got where I am. Many electrical contractors, maybe most of the current crop, can be proud of having once worked with the tools of the trade.

It’s also true that, in general, electricians who noticeably excel at their work have good technical skills and are also self-directed and productive. These are all desirable traits in a front-line supervisor.

But additional attributes are necessary for even the most outstanding electrical worker to become an effective team leader, communicator, mediator, decision-maker and all the other things we desire a foreman to be. The best craftsman is not necessarily the best at managing job site productivity, quality, and safety outcomes and delivering customer satisfaction.

This in no way implies that technical competency is not important. It’s a prime consideration. The electrical foreman must understand every step necessary for the successful completion of a given project so that he or she can ensure it is planned and executed properly. Foremen should also be able to perform the tasks required so they can participate in project performance and/or teach lesser skilled workers through hands-on demonstration as needed.

And, for that, you need someone who is competent and also able to motivate others to do their best, not a prima donna who is so puffed up by his or her own ability and position that he or she belittles lesser skilled workers. You need someone who is a team player, sees the big picture, can communicate to other workers what roles they play, and, most of all, is trusted and respected by coworkers.

That’s one reason it pays to know your employees, or at least to have a chain-of-command that keeps you alert not only to potential problems, but also to potential assets you might otherwise overlook. It’s certainly one reason I’ve repeatedly recommended that you talk and listen to your workers. Knowing your work force and keeping every member of it aware of your firm’s overall direction enables talented workers to shine when they are given opportunities to participate in achieving company goals. Your company clearly benefits, customers benefit and the employees benefit as you help them develop their full potential. It’s a win-win-win scenario.

In a similar vein, I’ve suggested that it’s a good idea to have regular meetings with office staff members and field workers alike. There’s a tie-in with choosing potential foremen. Any opportunity to generate feedback from your electricians can help you identify which of them has sufficient energy and good ideas to inspire others combined with the ability to build group consensus and overcome conflicts—to be a good coach, in other words.

After all, coaching the team is the main job of an effective foreman. As the first link between management and the work force, the foreman must motivate the workers on his or her team and focus them so they take ownership and pride in helping achieve the company’s overall goals as well as the immediate project goals.

Much of what a good foreman needs to know—planning and scheduling, cost accounting, recordkeeping, communicating well orally and in writing—can be taught. But, the quality most needed by those who lead crews is leadership, which is more of an inborn trait that can be nurtured than an acquired skill.

So look for the natural leaders, and help them develop their talents to lead your company forward!

About the Author

Rex A. Ferry

NECA President
Rex Ferry was president of the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) from 2009 through 2011 and contributed the President's Desk column monthly.

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