At Ease, Dude. Why Drill Sergeant Ways Don't Work So Well Anymore

Updated Jan 7, 2022
Construction supervisor holding a tablet and talking to an employee.
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With winter in full force and projects slowing down, now is a good time to take stock of things. For company owners, supervisors and managers, leadership lessons are one of those things worth contemplating.

Leadership today doesn’t look like it did 20 years ago. New employees bring new attitudes, face new challenges and require different approaches. To gain some insights into how construction company leaders can do a better job of managing this new workforce, Equipment World spent some time talking with Wally Adamchik.

As the founder of FireStarter Speaking and Consulting, Adamchik brings a background steeped in construction and the military, not to mention serving as Notre Dame’s Leprechaun mascot his senior year of college. According to Adamchik, if your goal is to pursue operational excellence, you have to study and implement good leadership practices across the board. As he put it below: “You have to recognize that you’re going to slow down so you can speed up.”

Wally Adamchik, founder, FireStarter SpeakingWally Adamchik is the founder of FireStarter Speaking and Consulting, a company that focuses on leadership strategy and development and employee assessment. Find out more about his company here: http://www.firestarterspeaking.comWally AdamchikHere’s our interview:

EW: In the past it seemed like the military drill-instructor style was the default mode for management in construction. But with so few people serving in the military today is that the case anymore? And is the drill instructor the best example to follow?

WA: If your model for leadership is “Full Metal Jacket,” you're probably missing something. Leadership used to be about command and control. The king ran the country, and he could execute you if you didn’t do what he wanted you to do. The military has had some success with that model, so it’s not all bad. But as we look at the evolution of society and demographics, people are less inclined to just salute today. They want to know the "why" more. They want to be treated with more respect.

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Over the last 20 years, the military has become a much more decentralized, nimble organization, where the frontline is empowered to make decisions, because of the need for counterterrorism and small unit warfare. So the military has continued to evolve, to match society and to match the demands of the battlespace.

EW: You mentioned in your email that one of the tell-tale signs of bad leadership is a lack of feedback, a boss who thinks you got a paycheck and that should be enough. Can you give us more details?

WA: We are a feedback-starved culture. Everybody likes to light up the scoreboard. People want to know how they're doing. If you’re not doing that,  it shows a lack of respect and engagement. It shows a lack of humanity. They could be doing great. They could be doing not as great. But let them know so they might get better.

In the construction industry, we’re feedback negative. What I mean by that is you need to give four positive bits of feedback for every one negative. Caterpillar Safety Services teaches seven positive to one negative. I don't know many leaders who could even get to two or three positives. So, there's a huge opportunity there, and there's no cost to it.

EW: Talk about why it’s important for leadership to provide training.

WA: Again, if we look at the change in demographics, shop classes have gone away. Recruiting kids who worked on the farm has gone away. The raw material coming in is not what it used to be. That being the case, you need to train them. In the old days, we used to throw people in the deep end to see if they were worth a darn. And I'm a fan of throwing people into the deep end. But can we give them some swimming lessons before we do?

In military training, they use performance standards. There is clarity on what proper execution looks like. You must be able to do this in X amount of time and/or X degree of completion. And whether you’re talking about an operator, foreman or mechanic there are competencies that are identifiable, trainable and repeatable.

One way to do this is to take an older worker, one who is about to retire and make him the equipment trainer, or your best operator or superintendent. And you can leverage technology like the simulators they have now. They’ve even got desktop simulators.

Leaders have to realize that training is an investment. It’s a recognition that we’re going to slow down to speed up.

EW: Talk about the lack of respect some young people complain about on the jobsite and how some leaders with a different work ethic and expectations can be blind to this.

WA: Young people today have a work ethic; it’s just a different work ethic. The long hours and irregular hours that construction requires don’t go over well with younger workers. There is a fundamental lack of understanding on both sides from young to old and old to young. Both bring value to the conversation, but rather than focus on the similarities we focus on the differences.

The key is finding common ground on a much more holistic level, where the vision and the values of the organization come from. Focus on what we’re here to do together as opposed to what divides us.

What I can guarantee is that if you don’t respect me, I won’t respect you. You demean me and ridicule me, and now you want me to take a bullet for you? It’s not going to happen. The corollary is that if I give respect, I may get it back. There’s no guarantee, but it's highly likely.

EW: A lot of managers think they have to micromanage the employees. That winds up causing some employees to feel a lack of respect. How do you solve that problem?

WA: New leaders have to remember to do their own job first. That’s what they were promoted for. The fear is the subordinate won’t do the job fast enough or to the expected level of quality and then the only way the manager can make that happen is to stand over the employee. But that doesn’t work. The supervisor breaks because he gets tired; the employee breaks because he gets disrespected, and he doesn’t feel trusted. When you micromanage, you make people feel insignificant.

Sometimes when we promote people into positions of leadership and they fail, to some degree that's a failure of the leader above them. The person who promoted them needs to explain what they're now responsible for. It’s their responsibility to train them on what supervision looks like.

EW: Earlier we talked about the different work ethics shown by different generations. Can you dive into that a little bit more? What does the new work ethic look like and how can old school managers deal with it?

WA: Well, I'm not talking about creating a new social services organization. But let's face it, people have issues these days. They have different responsibilities: childcare, adult care, elder care, Covid, dual wage earners. Life is happening in a way that it has never happened before. Twenty years ago, 50 percent of craft workers in construction were married. Today, 80 percent of them are married. This is a different dynamic, a different demographic that we're dealing with.

What does it say when a junior manager says his daughter went to the state softball championships? And the senior manager asks if he attended. When the junior manager says, “I was afraid to ask for time off,” that’s quite a gut punch.

This is part of the Great Resignation, the realignment we’re seeing where people are saying “screw that.” How do we figure out how to get that employee to at least a couple of these games?

EW: Trust is another big component of leadership. What must managers do to earn the trust of their employees?

WA: This one exists on two levels. There’s the overt liar, where you say something that’s factually untrue. But on a smaller level, it’s living up to commitments. Somebody comes to you because they have a problem with their pay. You say you’ll look into it, and you never do. Those micro-violations of trust aren’t necessarily character issues, but not living up to what you said you were going to do.

Trust is at an all-time low. Trust in every institution, from the clergy to the government to big business even the military. But you have an opportunity within the four walls of your organization to create a place where trust happens between employees and the boss. This isn't just some touchy-feely word. This is about creating a workplace where people feel safe, secure and willing to dig in.

EW: In the case of the boss not knowing that an employee’s kid is in a championship game or employees feeling a lack of trust in management, can’t some of these problems be traced back to a lack of communication skills?

WA: We know that 90 percent of the people in this industry are task-focused. They want to get the thing done. There’s this sense of urgency. But that means 90 percent of the people in this industry are not people-focused, which means they sometimes don’t listen well.

So the first part is to develop more self-awareness. The second part is a visualization technique I use to imagine a spotlight shining on me when I’m speaking and shining on you when you’re speaking. In a dialogue, the light shifts back and forth, but in active listening the spotlight stays on you. When we are talking, we perceive ourselves to be delivering higher value, and there is some truth to that. But when you help people figure out the answers more collaboratively through active listening, that’s how you add value.

EW: Self-control is also essential for a leader. Tell us what that looks like and how to maintain it.

WA: We’ve talked about self-awareness, and one of those things you must look out for is that tendency to spool up a bit. You need to move from reaction to response, from something at the base of our brain to something more cerebral. You should be aware of what that feels like when you’re about to lose it. Does your chest get tight, or your neck get red? Most of us feel something,  but we should pause, take a deep breath and remember there is a higher calling, a higher purpose to what we’re doing and a long-term purpose.

Otherwise, if you lose it, you go back to that drill instructor, command-and-control reaction. That may feel good, but it doesn’t work. The only thing you can do, once you've lost it, is apologize. That happens to managers. But what's the damage we do to somebody internally when we do lose it?

Remember to trust and respect. What do you do to create trust and respect? What you did 20 years ago may no longer be effective. I didn't say that was wrong. All I'm saying is that our culture and social demographics have evolved. The question is how do I lead and manage people who don't look and act and think like me? Because we're more diverse than we've ever been.

Adamchik will also be speaking at the upcoming Association of Equipment Management Professionals Connect 2022 conference March 21-22 in San Antonio, Texas. For more on the conference go here: