Good Construction Mgr vs. Bad CM


This simple training document was originally developed for our growing ranks of construction managers in leadership positions, inspired by Ben Horowitz’s book ‘The Hard Thing about Hard Things’. In 2×4-to-the-forehead fashion, Horowitz leaves little doubt that training is essential for successful outcomes, and that managers must do the training themselves, rather than leaving it up to others.
These points are written from my perspective as a consultant construction manager (owner’s representative); some are lessons I’ve learned the hard way, others are words of wisdom from a handful of incredible mentors that have shaped my career in innumerable ways. Read, digest, and take a minute to reflect on the traits and habits of project leaders that you admire. Then let me know what I missed or got wrong. Comments please!  To be clear: I do not pretend to be the “Good CM” in all cases. In fact, I’m almost certainly the “Bad CM” for some. I hope to improve on those areas. 

On Roles, Responsibilities & Organizations  

Good CMs appreciate the entire lifecycle of a project, from planning to design to construction to commissioning. Bad CMs care only about “building stuff” designed by others.  Good CMs know who owns what risks, according to the Contract. Bad CMs don’t have the foggiest idea of who is at risk and why.  Good CMs take it upon themselves to make sure that everyone has a crystal-clear understanding of “who does what” from top to bottom. Bad CMs tolerate sloppy and dysfunctional organizations.   Good CMs demand clear and efficient chains of communication. Bad CMs find themselves relaying the same exact issue 5 separate times to 5 different people, all of whom need to be “in the loop”.  Good CMs proactively manage their org chart and take great pride in it. Good CMs have the right people in the right positions doing the right things, with sufficient manpower to meet project demands. Bad CMs tolerate the wrong people sitting in the wrong positions doing the wrong things for as long as their client will let them get away with it. Good CMs care about the quality of their staff. Bad CMs care about the quantity of their staff.  Good CMs admit when they don’t know something, then they go find an expert who does. Bad CMs pretend to be the expert on anything and everything. 

On Client Relations  

Good CMs treat their client with respect and deference at all times. Bad CMs bad-mouth their client (but not for long).  Good CMs try to walk a mile in their client’s shoes. Good CMs pay close attention to where their client goes, who they’re meeting with, etc. Bad CMs fail to recognize external pressures that influence their client’s behavior.  Good CMs understand that there can only be one at the top of any org chart. Good CMs know that individual has superior knowledge of the big picture, and shoulders tremendous accountability for the performance of the organization. Bad CMs grumble about direction from above.   Good CMs recognize that leading a megaproject is like managing a major league baseball team; the possibility of getting fired comes with the territory. Bad CMs allow their thinking to become clouded with worries about job security and CYA.  Good CMs know that it’s the client’s bus; sometimes they let the CM drive, sometimes they don’t. Bad CMs get upset when the client wants to drive their own bus once in a while.

On Contracts  

Good CMs think of the “Project” and the “Contract” as one in the same. Good CMs uphold and deliver the Contract from NTP through Final Completion. Bad CMs “manage by feel”, reading the Contract only in times of crisis or dispute.  Good CMs consider the unintended consequences of changing their Contract or waiving its requirements. Bad CMs rush into changes or relief in order to get past the crisis du jour.  Good CMs implement necessary and prudent changes by following the Contract’s procedural requirements. Bad CMs believe the Contract’s procedural requirements are optional.

On Project Management  

Good CMs seek out new and innovative project management tools, or develop their own. Bad CMs muddle through, using outdated tools that are no longer effective.  Good CMs know the schedule inside and out, and strive to know it better than the contractor himself. Bad CMs fail to learn how the contractor’s schedule works, then make excuses like “garbage in/garbage out”.  Good CMs recognize that the schedule is the backbone of the entire project. Good CMs demand a realistic and clear-eyed schedule. Bad CMs accept junk schedules. Bad CMs have no idea when or how the project will be completed.   Good CMs establish strong relationships with project management types and field superintendents. Bad CMs deal only with management.  Good CMs report progress using tailor-made documents and graphics that pack a punch. Bad CMs use dry narratives or existing project records that are not suitable for their target audience.  Good CMs set aside time to develop big ideas that create lasting value for the project and profession. Bad CMs spend their days/months/years playing “whack-a-mole”, jumping from one problem to the next.Good CMs recognize when the team is doing something extraordinary, and broadcast the success story. Bad CMs talk only about problems.  Good CMs understand the tremendous value of good PR. Bad CMs don’t want to be bothered with it.  Good CMs follow up. Bad CMs don’t.

On Communication & Work Habits  

Good CMs demand crystal-clear communication, always using the correct terminology. Bad CMs allow people to ramble on, beat around the bush, and use incorrect or confusing words.  Good CMs ask well-crafted questions in order to obtain useful answers. Bad CMs ask sloppy questions and therefore receive useless answers.  Good CMs get up and sketch on the whiteboard. Bad CMs allow a room full of people to debate problems and solutions while fundamentally misunderstanding the work in question.   Good CMs keep a clean and well-organized desk. Bad CMs are buried in piles of useless paper.  Good CMs send clear, concise, factual emails, and only when absolutely necessary. Bad CMs use email as if it were a chat room.  Good CMs read and respond to emails only a couple of times per day with purpose and speed. Bad CMs stare at Outlook all day waiting for the next distraction to land in their inbox. 
Good CMs take pride in their craft, preparing and proofreading all written work products with painstaking care. Good CMs wouldn’t flinch if every one of their letters was published in the Washington Post. Bad CMs send out correspondence and documents riddled with errors and inaccuracies.  Good CMs regularly take time out to conduct weekly, monthly, and annual look-aheads, thinking about the big picture and upcoming priorities. Bad CMs wait for their client or manager to tell them what’s important.

On Crisis Management  

Good CMs slow their thinking and keep a level head through times of crisis. Bad CMs freak out and behave irrationally.  Good CMs make sure that everyone understands the current situation. Bad CMs assume that everyone is up to speed.  Good CMs report bad news right away, then get to work on solving the problem. Bad CMs allow problems to fester unreported, hoping that nobody will notice.

On Mentors and Protégés  

Good CMs know who’s who around the industry, then seize the opportunity to work with and learn from the best in the business. Bad CMs fail to recognize when they’re in the presence of greatness.  Good CMs care deeply about advancing the careers of junior staff, even when doing so inconveniences the project. Bad CMs exploit junior staff for their own short-term gains, or to preserve the status-quo.

Where to go with this?  

Let’s crowdsource this thing, shall we? What did I miss? What did I get wrong? Submit your own thoughts on Good CMs/Bad CMs in the comments, and perhaps we can grow this together as a living document with credits to all contributors.James Wonneberg specializes in management and delivery of large public works projects, currently serving as Resident Engineer for the $330M Blue Plains Tunnel design-build contract, part of DC Water’s $2.6B DC Clean Rivers Project in Washington, DC. James was recently featured in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ video What do Civil Engineers Do?, motivating the next generation to join this great profession of ours.
EPC Consultants, Inc. is a program, project and construction management consulting firm based in San Francisco. Established in 1988, EPC offers a multi-disciplined team of professionals that manage all phases of construction projects. We focus on major infrastructure projects, including buildings, convention facilities, airports, tunnels, pipelines, water/wastewater, and transit projects.

The Author: James Wonneberg, PE, CCM 

James Wonneberg, PE, CCM

About:Supporting WSDOT on the I-405 Renton to Bellevue Widening & Express Toll Lanes Project.  Co-founder of GraphicSchedule.

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