3 Leadership Traits That Transcend Skills and Experience

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In my previous career, I managed a purchasing department for a large construction home builder in Arizona, Standard Pacific Homes (SPH). The president of our division was a woman named Kathy, who to my knowledge had never actually worked in construction, poured footings or framed houses. Instead, she arrived at her position through the finance side of the business, starting in accounting and working her way to the top.

When I first arrived at SPH, I was rather shocked to learn that the individual in charge of such a large home building company had never actually built homes. With management aspirations of my own, I pursued an undergraduate degree in construction management and worked a few years in the field as an assistant superintendent (otherwise known as a “grunt”).

Meeting Kathy threw my whole strategy off.

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It did not take long to quickly realize what made Kathy such an incredibly effective leader despite her lack of construction experience. She was personable and outgoing, constantly walking through the office, striking up conversations and always quick with a joke. What made her truly remarkable, however, was her ability to channel these three valuable traits:

1. Encouraging 

More than just being optimistic and providing positive feedback, Kathy put her money where her mouth was. She thrived on challenging people to do more and better, and she rewarded those who stepped up with promotions -- she eventually promoted me to purchasing director. Conversely, it was well known that she had little patience for those who did not pull their weight and was not shy to send you packing.

Interestingly, during my time with SPH, the housing market was booming, and there were more construction jobs than qualified personnel, so finding a position with a competitor was never a problem. Under Kathy’s leadership, however, I do not remember a single manager leaving on his or her own will.

2. Engaging

Kathy may not have known the intricacies of hurricane ties or post-tension slabs, but she was masterful in managing the team that did. From land development to home closings, when she did not know something, she was not afraid to admit it and ask about it -- and quick to point out that it was our job to know this stuff, not hers.

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More important, she knew how to leverage respect and often humor to tame the room full of almost entirely men with no shortage of egos or opinions.

3. Enforcing

Kathy had a management system that included an accordion file case with 31 slots, one for each day of the month. When she asked you to do something, she would write it on a sticky-note and place it into the file sleeve for the day you were to have it done. When that day came, you would find the sticky note on your computer screen as a reminder to report to her your status.

Missing a deadline without a reasonable excuse typically meant dealing with her wrath during the weekly production meetings and, worse, her silent disappointment for days after. And, again, missing too many deadlines meant you were not going to be around long to find any more sticky notes on your computer.

I understand that Kathy was promoted to a divisional leadership role not long after I left SPH, which does not surprise me in the least. I often reference Kathy when someone tries to explain to me that great leaders come from experts in a field. Kathy was certainly no expert in construction, but you would have a difficult time convincing her employees that she was not the best at running a construction company.

It has been almost 15 years since my time with SPH and probably as long since I spoke with Kathy. I should probably set a reminder to look her up and drop her a line. Maybe for old times sake, I will just put a sticky-note on my calendar to remind me.

If you had a great mentor in your past, please share your experience with others below.

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