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A Major General’s Perspective on Leadership

by The Keystone Contractor

There may be a shortage of skilled workers in the construction industry, but there is no shortage of advice on how construction companies can retain institutional knowledge by pairing industry veterans with young professionals. In fact, the Construction Management Association of America has an online guide that can help contractors create an entire plan of action for setting up a mentorship program, complete with best practices for generating discussion, and providing feedback.

What that guide doesn’t specify, however, is how to identify who is a prime candidate for mentorship to begin with.

To get a general sense of what companies should look for, we spoke with John Gronski, a retired two-star major general who spent 40 years in the Army and now freelances as a leadership consultant. The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity:

Keystone Contractor: What is your philosophy on leadership?

John Gronski: My leadership philosophy is about character, competence, and resilience. The elements under character are values, trust, and care for those who lead. And when I talk about care, for those who lead, I’m talking about getting to know the people you lead and to know what makes them tick. I think another way a leader could show those they lead that they care is by providing resources that your people need, that they might not be able to provide for themselves. I think a leader shows care for their people and remove obstacles that are in the path of the people they lead. People want to do a good job. People want to do the proper things. And it’s up to a leader to set conditions, and I really think that’s a big part of caring for those who lead in terms of competence. As for resilience, that breaks down into optimism, emotional , and vulnerability. That vulnerability is about sharing stories about times you failed and how you were able to bounce back from that failure.

KC: How does that philosophy factor into mentoring young professionals?

JG: I think a lot of young leaders, aspiring leaders, think of mentorship as one of the senior leaders from the organization calling them in and sitting down with them to provide them all this sage advice. I mean, that rarely happens. But I think senior leaders need to explain the concept of mentorship to aspiring leaders by explaining to them “hey, mentorship is all around you.” When you’re sitting in on a meeting that one of your leaders is conducting, notice how the leader conducts the meeting, both the good and the bad. You could get mentored just by observing how leaders conduct themselves. I also think leaders really need to help aspiring leaders understand the importance of character and values. A lot of organizations have organizational values. I like to ask business leaders this: When the senior leadership team is going through a decision-making process, does the team factor their organizational values into the decisions they make? And I think if we look at the past 10-20 years, in business, we’ve seen some companies failed because they didn’t act appropriately.

KC: Can you give an example of that?

JG: I think a perfect example of a company factoring their organizational values into a business decision was Johnson & Johnson during the Tylenol crisis that happened back in 1982. James Burke, who was the CEO at the time, really went through a process where he brought in people on the leadership team, took a look at the company credo, and said “Hey, these are our values. We’re going to get together, and we’re going to decide that we’re going to keep the credo as it is, we’re going to change it slightly, or we’re going to get rid of it entirely if nobody is going to abide by these values.” And then, he went on a roadshow to talk to aspiring leaders throughout the organization about how important it was to abide by the values of that credo. It cost the company, I believe, about $100 million–to take 31 million bottles of Tylenol off the shelves throughout the country and allowed consumers to return open bottles of Tylenol back for a full refund. And because of that, within six months after that Tylenol crisis, that brand regained 80% of the market share because of the steps that they took. So again, I think it was just a great display of a leader factoring organizational values into a business decision, which cost the company $100 million. But they were able to regain that brand loyalty again because they took the right steps.

KC: So then how do you go about finding young leaders who you can mentor to make similarly good decisions? What qualities are you looking for?

JG: You have to ask yourself: Does this person exhibit curiosity? Do they exhibit a desire to learn? If they present an arrogant attitude and present an attitude where they think they know everything already, that’s probably not a good prospect to develop, because those people are displaying a hesitancy to be open-minded and to learn from others. You’re looking for curious people and people who have that propensity to always want to learn a little more and don’t think that they know everything. I think another thing to look for is somebody who displays dignity and respect to the people they lead. By that, I mean somebody who believes that in their position as a leader, it is their duty to serve the people they lead, rather than the other way around.

KC: What are some common pitfalls to avoid in a formal mentorship program?

JG: I think I’m a little bit leery of formal mentorship programs. I think informal mentorship actually works best. From my experience, a mentor and a mentee have to have chemistry together. That’s the key to the relationship. But let’s go with your question, though. If you’re setting up a formal program, you’ve got to have ground ground rules for both the mentor and the mentee. Some people who are being mentored think the ball is always in the mentor’s court or that it’s up to the mentor to call the meeting. It’s up to the mentor to provide guidance. I think the mentees have responsibilities as well. They have to be willing to ask questions and not only accept guidance that the mentors is giving them, but also show the responsibility to ask questions themselves. They have to show the responsibility, that when a mentor does make a recommendation about a certain practice that they should begin in their lives, they at least give it a try. You know, rather than just say no, this isn’t going to work for me. And all of these things can be worked out when ground rules are developed for both the mentor and the mentee. So I guess one of the pitfalls is, ground rules are not developed, and expectations are not set. So for a formalized mentorship program to work, I think both of those things need to occur.

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