Skills For Superintendent Success

 When I landed my first Superintendent role, a position I actively sought, my project manager (a former Superintendent) summed up the role in two sentences: “You control everything that happens on this job. You need to know everything that happens on this job.” You might think my PM’s use of “everything” was just a general term, however, he really meant EVERYTHING. Everything means every detail that affects the schedule, quality, cost and safety of a job-site. These are all the responsibility of the Superintendent.   

When a design professional specifies a material for use on a project, they do so on the quantitative properties of the material and how it will perform and integrate with other materials to deliver on the intent of the structure. Similarly, many projects specify the required properties needed to fill the role of Superintendent.    

For example, job requirements on a particular build might deem that the Superintendent have ten years experience in similar work, be 30-hour safety trained and be LEED certified. However, simply checking boxes that a Superintendent meets such quantitative properties doesn’t ensure their success or the success of the project. Personally, I believe there’s a greater list of actionable skills and experience that should be in the job description:

  • Hands-on knowledge of the trades to decipher truth from hearsay on the site, especially when the work may not meet specifications  
  • Ability to understand critical path scheduling and drive work accordingly

  • Intimate knowledge of the contract and scope of work to avoid going outside the scope of work without a change order

  • Project accounting skills especially for understanding indirect costs

  • Leadership skills with the ability to earn the trust and respect of those working on the project

  • Conflict diffusion & resolution skills

  • Humility and patience 

To confirm I was on the right track, I asked some well-respected friends in the business who are veteran Superintendents for their opinion on what skills a Superintendent must possess. 

My friend Anthony Johnsen, a Superintendent for Gilbane, Inc. on a massive infrastructure project in Washington DC, was the first to respond.   

JS. What skills make for a great Superintendent?

AJ. I am a firm believer that the most successful Superintendents are the best problem solvers who originated from the trades because they have physically done the work and have a better understanding of the tasks at hand. They also need skills in risk assessment to make the right decisions.

JS. Superintendents are leaders on their projects; can you teach someone to be a good a leader or does leadership come from within?

AJ. You can teach any person to be a Superintendent. You cannot teach someone to be a leader. Leadership comes from within. Leaders must gain the loyalty and commitment from the entire project [team].

JS. What are the most common mistakes Superintendents make?

AJ. The most common mistakes are not maintaining proper job site documentation and not [confirming or verifying] the words of our Project Managers. The trades say one thing about the work but you heard another [in terms of the direction the trades are to follow on the job].

JS. What is the hardest part of the job?

AJ. The hardest part of the job is dealing with multiple personalities at one time. The Superintendent must take their own feelings out of every equation regardless of outcomes.

JS.  How does (or should) a company support its Superintendents to be successful?

AJ.  A company should support its superintendents by better managing its contracts. A well written contract that clearly spells out the scope of work, is just as valuable as the drawings and specifications. The Superintendents are usually the first field interaction with subcontractors. We know the trades’ ethics and quality of work. When conducting the final review of subcontractor bids, ask your company’s Superintendents for their thoughts about which subcontractor is best for the job.  This will mitigate the risk [of delays or cost over-runs) once they’re on the project.   

So, as you can see, the Superintendent job description is more complex than what it appears in the specifications.  

Want to hear more from experienced Superintendents at the top of their field? Check back in for my next post, where I’ll feature more interviews.

Please share your ideas as well. Once we collect a library of skills and tips for Superintendent success, we will develop and post a document on the website that you and your company may reference at any time.

Mission Critical Operations (MC Ops) is a construction management & advisory consultancy focused on improving quality, schedule and financial performance on high-profile and potentially contentious projects throughout the nation.