Rethinking How to Identify and Promote Leaders in the Field

Stephanie Patterson, Rhumbix InsiderNovember 06, 2017 • 4 min read

What are mechanical and sheet metal contractors hungry for? New ways to train and equip their leaders, make their crews more productive, and get rid of paper for good.

That’s what the Rhumbix crew heard first-hand in conversations with attendees at the 2017 SMACNA Annual Convention. The event was attended by more than 1,500 people in leadership roles at small to mid-size companies, and a large majority of them stopped by our booth on the show floor to talk.

One of the biggest challenges facing mechanical contractors is what they’re doing to train and equip their future generation of leaders. This is an important nuanced issue. Beyond just a simple shortage in labor is the shortage of leaders. Many, many people said that a portion of their leadership team, in the field AND the office, will be retiring in the next few years.

Perhaps that’s why one of the most popular sessions at the event was the one called, The Six Million Dollar Foreman: How Smart Contractors Identify, Train, and Promote their Top Talent.

Presenter Nic Bittle challenged attendees to change the way they identify and equip future leaders based on the skills, qualities, and characteristics they need to thrive in the long run. The session created so much of a buzz on the show floor, we decided to connect directly with Nic for a brief interview.

Rhumbix: What is the Six Million Dollar Foreman?

Nic: The Six Million Dollar Foreman is about changing how we identify and train future leaders in construction. Traditionally, we look at whether someone is good at the trade to determine if they are on a leadership track. But when I ask construction owners and executives what character traits it takes to be a leader, being skilled in the trade is simply one factor. Much more important are things like being a good communicator, loyalty, integrity, honesty, drive, delegation, and negotiation.

So there’s a mismatch in what we’re looking for and who we’re promoting. Instead of waiting five to ten years to see if someone is skilled enough in the trade, we need to be looking for those in year-one, year-two apprenticeships that have the inherent qualities of great leadership and then pour our time, effort, and mentoring into them.

Rhumbix: Why is this message important for mechanical contractors?

Nic: Several years ago, I started seeing the beginning of a leadership gap. As leaders were retiring, there was no one groomed and ready to replace them. Most firms I work with tell me they are anticipating major changes in leadership—especially in the field—in the next four to fourteen years. But they’ll also tell you it takes fifteen years to groom a foreman.

Unless we change how we identify and train leaders, the gap is only going to get worse. Many of the right guys and gals are being passed up simply because they are not yet advanced enough in the trade, or don’t have exposure to construction. But what they do have is the inherent qualities they need to be a great leader.

Rhumbix: How do you see technology playing a role in grooming future leaders?

Nic: I think in some ways it’s helping and in some ways it’s hurting. Communication and information are two different things, so what you want to look for are tools that are going to improve communication and not just create more information.

I think it’s great that you can now look at plans in real-time on a thirty-six inch monitor, and that there are apps for things like safety. But you’ve still got to teach people how to handle conflict well and the art of a productive face-to-face conversation. To the extent that technology can improve communications, I’m all for it.


We love Nic’s perspective on grooming future leaders and the role technology plays in making that happen. Improved communications between the field and home office is something Rhumbix is working hard to make a reality through our field intelligence platform, and we saw a high level of interest in timekeeping solutions and other methods for going paperless in the field from SMACNA attendees.

So while mechanical contractors may be early in their journey to better equip field workers, they are on their way. And that’s what matters.

Want to find out more about Nic and how he helps construction firms equip future leaders? Check out his website and explore the great content and coaching he offers.

Questions and answers edited for brevity and clarity.