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Preparing for transition

Overcome Generational Differences and Develop Your Construction Company’s Millennial Successors

  • 9/22/2017

A recent Nationwide Insurance survey conducted by Harris Poll found that three in five small businesses do not have a succession plan in place. Among construction companies, that number is probably conservative. This is not surprising given Baby Boomers’ penchant for working into their retirement years and the belief by nearly half of those polled that such a plan is not necessary.

In fact, we are seeing this in our own work with construction clients. In some cases, business owners are waiting for perfect copies of themselves to emerge spontaneously. In others, one simple issue is getting in the way: Baby Boomer owners are reluctant to plan because they don’t believe Millennials have the abilities to take over their companies.

Read our articles about succession planning for construction and real estate companies.

Millennials versus Boomers

In the construction industry, we hear concern among current owners about the perceived lack of ambition among Millennials, but it may be time for a reality check.

Baby Boomers entered the workforce between 1964 and 1982. What did the Greatest Generation think of this “younger generation” who had not lived through the Great Depression and had not fought and won World War II? Did they trust the rebellious, long-haired generation that seemed to be adrift, quick to question authority, and only cared about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll?

Yet, the Baby Boomers grew into those driven, high achievers that many companies are now challenged to replace. The reality is that the next business leaders will emerge from the younger generation. The point here is that there have always been differences between older people and younger people in the work force — it doesn’t matter if you call them Millennials, Xers, Ys, or Zs — there are differences that are rooted in age and experience, and there always will be.

Building common ground in shared work values

In the same way that there have always been generational differences, there has always been enough common ground to work productively together. Focusing on shared beliefs rather than differences can revitalize a group and build the workplace community as well as meet business objectives.

The generational issues below are typically seen as area of conflict. But they can also illustrate key areas of common ground.

Career: “This is more than a job, this is my life.” Which generation might embrace this perspective? Depending on how you read the statement, both. Most people involved in the construction industry love the lifestyle that goes with it, regardless of their role. Most hope that their career helps provide for their families. In general, people want to be recognized as a successful professional. The distinction between personal life and work life has shrunk — but given a standard workweek of 40 hours plus overtime, one may wonder if that distinction ever really existed.

Leadership: For those who choose a leadership path in their work, most understand that they must embrace responsibilities and sacrifice in order to experience the satisfaction of building a viable organization. Leaders work long hours, no matter what generation you belong to. Individuals in construction are often independent and competitive. Sometimes leaders are concerned that stepping down may be perceived as a weakness, when in reality it is a strength to be forward-thinking enough to do it. Acknowledging these beliefs and actually discussing leadership is one way to find common ground.

Meaningful work: One generation talks of a lack of opportunity, while the other talks about the lack of ambition. In the construction industry, the most significant commonality across generations that may bridge these perspectives is the powerful feeling of accomplishment in building something (building, road, bridge) that has some permanence and value.

It can be a structure, or it can be an enduring business. Most people want to be part of a successful team that builds things with permanence. Most want their investments of time and energy to make a difference. Balancing time and effort at work with time in personal pursuits is not a new or particularly unique struggle. Finding that balance allows people to perform well in the workplace, be recognized for their accomplishments, and at the same time have a rich personal life at home and in their communities.

Lifelong learning: The construction industry is constantly evolving. From new materials to different contract requirements, working in construction demands continuously developing and refining your skills. Again, this isn’t an age or generational issue; continuous learning is part of working in this industry.

If we focus on the common ground, there is no reason to believe that a different and younger person cannot be brought into a leadership role as they mature.

Embracing the basic truths

Regardless of the differences in approach between generations, there is no excuse to avoid planning for succession. In fact, failing to plan for succession presents a significant risk that your construction company will not survive a handoff from the current leadership. As the saying goes, “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.”

Developing leadership in your organization starting today will require embracing some basic truths:

  • Prepared or not, a succession event will occur in the future — date unknown.
  • Sustaining the value of the company in the absence of the owner is essential.
  • Long-range planning provides more flexibility in the face of unanticipated events.
  • The next generation of leaders must be identified and purposefully developed.
  • Leadership comes in many forms and from many areas of your organization — that’s healthy.
  • Different generations share similar values — focus on the value, not the process.
  • Leadership skills are developed through continuing education or job assignment learning opportunities.
  • Recognizing and rewarding top talent retains employees and strengthens your work environment.
  • The new generation of leaders must be competent and credible — credibility takes time.
  • A succession plan should be concrete — commit it to writing. The development plan for new leadership should be formal but flexible.
  • Monitoring and evaluating progress of transition demonstrates your commitment to your plan.

What’s next?

Developing new leaders takes time, and patience is required on all sides. Current and aspiring leaders must place the sustainability of the organization above short-term objectives and personal comfort. Deciding to be an aspiring leader who respects and leverages the knowledge of those who came before will present many opportunities for advancement. Current leaders must model true leadership by proactively planning for a smooth transition and minimal disruption. Their legacy will be long remembered by those who are next to lead.

CLA understands the key issues around business succession and can help you begin a successful transition. We promise to apply that knowledge to your unique situation and help you lead, regardless of your location on life’s journey.