Finding Your Foremen

Field supervisors are your key people. For most companies, the quality of job site supervision is the difference between profits and financial ruin. The great ones provide you with essential feedback and creative ideas on how to improve your installation processes and customer service. Those with good judgment and well-developed people skills motivate your crews, delight your clients and help solve conflicts.

Where do you find great foremen? Traditionally, you promote the best journey-level electricians and send them to a seminar on cost control or scheduling. Then, you send them out to perform the job and are confused when they begin to flounder, become frustrated and quit. It is time to take another look at how the electrical contracting industry selects its job site supervisors and how the process can be more effective.

The paradigm of promotion is based on selecting the person who does the best job and rewarding him with a more challenging position. The problem with that traditional approach is threefold.

First, excellent performance in one position doesn’t guarantee ability in a completely different job requiring a radical change in skills. Second, a person who is fulfilled and motivated in a craft position may not be prepared for the emotional effects of supervising others. Third, the new supervisor won’t always seek help in time to prevent problems.

Craft training emphasizes hands-on competencies. There is neither time nor incentive for most successful, productive electricians to demonstrate their management potential or acquire the skill sets required to make the transition to supervision. Without training and mentoring to close gaps in background knowledge, adapting to foremanship is like floating a leaky raft through dangerous rapids.

Selecting qualified field people for foremanship begins with a clear understanding of the skills and abilities needed for the new position. The four-page National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) publication, “Duties of Electrical Foremen,” lists technical and personal skills such as reporting progress to the employer and operating responsibly, with “trustworthiness, dignity, diplomacy and authority befitting such a position.”

The foreman must understand plans and specifications, codes, contract costs, material requisitioning, tool and equipment operation and maintenance, and keeping daily records. Supervision of electricians and apprentices includes job layout, task assignment, crew size adjustments, coaching and training, and hands-on installation when needed.

The job also involves setting a good example for the crew and enforcing a “fair standard of workmanship” as well as compliance with the labor agreement, dealing with the union steward, overseeing safety regulations, insisting on good housekeeping and disciplining employees who perform poorly.

Let’s not forget managing time cards and being alert to jurisdictional problems, while maintaining harmonious relationships with other contractors and their crews, customer representatives, inspectors and home office. How can one person possibly do all of these things well and still lead the team?

President Harry Truman said, “Leadership is the ability to get people to do what they don’t want to do and like it.” Look for the electrician who can handle pressure, keep coworkers calm, doesn’t complain and is eager to tackle difficult problems.

Don’t overlook the creative thinkers or those who question procedures. They may be more difficult to handle, but they break down the wall of complacency that impedes progress. Some of them are natural born leaders with charisma, and the crew will follow them anywhere. As long as that charisma is supported by integrity and loyalty, a little “off the path” thinking is an asset.

Leadership ability is more about attitude than definable skill and it isn’t always obvious. Create opportunities for feedback, by holding electrician roundtables or inviting field representatives to strategy meetings. Watch who generates the most energy and ideas, builds consensus within the group and respects those with conflicting opinions.

Hire outside consultants to screen field employees for leadership potential. Read “Working with Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman, to understand how people can be trained to use the information their emotions provide to manage others’ and their own performance more effectively.

Goleman defines emotional intelligence as “the missing link between ability and performance,” and the “capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.”

Most personnel management and customer service problems are based, to some degree, on miscommunication and the failure to handle conflicts well. While psychological research shows that only 4 to 25 percent of work and life achievements correlate with IQ scores, the preponderance of success for high performers was due to the key elements of emotional intelligence—mastery of self and mastery of relationships.

The electrician who is meticulous about caring for tools and equipment can be taught to improve verbal and written language skills, keyboarding, efficient use of technology and proper recordkeeping. Most training targets these procedural skills.

It is much more difficult to teach good judgment and the ability to build rapport and electrical industry training lacks coverage of these critical skills. Maintaining personal control, mediating disputes and discerning when to listen are just as important as technical knowledge in maintaining both internal and external relationships.

The best foremen may not be the most gifted electricians, but they must understand the process and be able to see the big picture. By promoting the best electricians, you may be trading field efficiency for mediocre management. Look for the competent electrician who is a team player, not the prima donna dancing to his own tune.

To stay ahead of the technology curve, a little of the “techno geek” in your foremen is a desirable quality. Most people use only about 20 percent of the features of their software, PDAs and cell phones, so look for the candidate who gets the most out of these tools, and the one who would give his or her right arm to go with you to the next trade show.

Ultimately, you are looking for “competency,” defined by educational assessment and training professionals as “an observable behavior,” and “an underlying characteristic an individual possesses and uses which leads to successful performance in a life role.”

Competency equals capability, the point at which a person can do the job. In hiring and promotion, what you are looking for is someone who gets it, not only technical knowledge and field skill, but savvy awareness of the big picture.

Knowledge, skills and roles are fairly easy to identify and develop in people. Values, attitude, personal traits and motives are much more difficult to identify and develop, since they are based on long-standing beliefs and habits. Technical competencies are easy to evaluate, and electricians who are functioning effectively will have them. It is the core competencies—the ability to do things right—that require close observation.

In a cover story for Engineering News Record, Bill Badger, the director of the Del E. Webb School of Construction at Arizona State University, said, “Construction is a people business. In this business, you are hired for your technical skills, fired for your lack of people skills and promoted for your management skills.”

He went on to define a distinction between management and leadership.

“Management is the hard skills—planning, directing, organizing and keeping score. Leadership is the soft skills—vision, working together, motivation, building trust among the players, ethics.”

Healthy self-esteem and respect for others are essential traits in good supervisors. Being promoted from electrician to foreman creates a separation between the foreman and his or her former peer group. Some newly promoted foremen don’t survive the transition. High self-esteem buffers fear of failure, and respect for others builds trust among subordinates.

It is lonely at the top, as any business owner knows. New foremen need support and mentoring in order to adapt to their roles, especially if they have been comfortable and confident in their former positions. John Negro, president of Nelson Electric and winner of the NECA Coggeshall Award for outstanding contributions to the industry in technical and training service, captured the essence of the value of mentoring in his paper “Mentoring Our Future Leaders” (Academy of Electrical Contractors).

Negro says that modeling a good example is as important as praise and encouragement, so the protégé understands what is expected. Mistakes are valuable learning experiences and failure should not be fatal as the protégé “grows into” the job. Nurturing talent requires the mentor to be available and focus on the needs of the protégé, encourage him or her to use potential and develop a vision. The protégé usually has the answer to a problem, but needs approval and ratification.

Negro suggests asking the protégé’s opinion to build confidence in problem solving. Establishing peer groups of new and experienced foremen can provide a safe harbor for sharing ideas, airing grievances and supporting critical thinking when the formal mentor is not available.

Investing in continuous management training is a key to developing and keeping foremen, especially in the areas such as:

°Contract administration and reporting (handling changes and notifications, tracking costs and time, using technology to reduce overhead)

°Financial issues (cost control, estimating, purchasing)

°Planning (scheduling, time management, job structuring and task assignments)

°Control (motivating, disciplining, and coaching subordinates)

°Communication (marketing to owners, negotiating with design professionals, reducing conflicts between trades, listening to ideas and solving problems)

The Construction Industry Institute and FMI, in research on productivity, found that a third of all field labor falls into the category of recoverable lost time, which could have been productive with better training, task instruction, understanding of quality standards, and systems for observing and measuring results. They also found that field supervisors, the managers of the largest cost component (field labor), are often under-trained, contributing to the underperformance of their crews.

Common ways electrical contractors develop future leaders are internal training programs, industry seminars (such as NECA’s Management Education Institute programs), publications, and convention training. Field employees are welcomed into management training courses at companies such as Capital Electric (Electrical Contractor, November 2004), where 96 percent of field electricians and linemen have voluntarily taken the Total Quality Management course.

Such investments in training, as well as supportive mentoring, not only help you spot interested and talented foreman candidates, but ensure that they have the tools they need to succeed in their new positions. Having a full toolbox makes it a lot easier to do the job. EC

NORBERG-JOHNSON is a former subcontractor and past president of two national construction associations. She may be reached at


Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.