Our guest on Behind the Builders today is Derek Lemmon, Senior Project Manager at Clune Construction. Derek has almost 10 years experience as a project manager and specializes in healthcare-related projects. Join us as we dive into Derek’s path through the construction industry, the value of mentorship in construction, his unique approach to managing stress, and more!
Q: Can you give a brief overview of your story and your journey through the construction industry
Derek: I started with an interest in construction when I was young. My dad worked in the trades and my mom’s an accountant so there was kind of this mix between blue collar and white collar backgrounds. I’ve always worked on job sites for family friends and folks that own smaller companies so I’ve been in and around the trades and the industry for a long time.
Then when I was in school, I started as a business major but my roommate was actually a construction management major. I saw the things that he was learning in his coursework and drew an interest very quickly, so I changed majors there afterwards and the rest is kind of history.
Q: Can you give a little bit of insight into what your first step into the construction industry was and how has that evolved as you’ve gone through it?
Derek: My first role was a project engineer which is a role with a wide range of responsibilities and touchpoints with other teams, so you are kind of the glue between the superintendent, the project manager, the project coordinator, the project executives, etc. In that role you get to feel out the different sectors of the industry as a general contractor.
As a construction management major you can go in several different directions. You can work for an owner, you can work for a general contractor, or you can work for a subcontractor like a plumber or a carpenter. I chose the general contractor route and so the entry level for that route is a project engineer. From there I transitioned to the level of assistant superintendent and I worked my way up to a project superintendent.
I was still doing somewhat of the project engineer type of tasks and processing change orders so I had some of the EPM background and when I changed companies to go to a different location I took the project management route. From the PM role I quickly transitioned to a senior project manager and now I’m at the point where I am running a team.
Q: What was it about general contractors that really appealed to you and pulled you in that direction?
Derek: I was always interested in how a building came together from start to finish. In school, you get a good foundation of that but you only learn little bits and pieces. I didn’t have a specific interest in one aspect or another but I ultimately chose commercial construction. I then kind of fell into the healthcare side of it, and now I’ve been building hospitals for 16 years now.
Within the general contractor route there’s also different sectors, but usually you don’t have a choice and you fall into whatever you are given. I was fortunate enough to kind of guide that pathway where I had a couple of different companies that specialize in certain aspects of the industry and I chose healthcare.
Q: What was the most difficult part of transitioning from the role of project engineer to the level of superintendent and then eventually all the way up to senior project manager?
Derek: When taking on more responsibility or transitioning to a different role there’s a transition period and in that transition period you still have to do your previous job, so there’s a time management aspect to it and as a young individual that can be challenging. The other aspect of the transition is the attention to detail, since there are so many moving parts you need to be aware of.
Learning those rules of the game and how to be good at a certain job, it just takes time, so transitioning from a project engineer to a superintendent there were certain aspects of it that I already knew just from being in that kind of role. But digging down into it and actually being good as a superintendent, it just took time as I increased my knowledge and experience.
Then the transition from a superintendent to a project manager was actually easier in my opinion than from a project engineer to a superintendent, just because I already had a really good handle on the field aspect of the projects. I knew how a building came together and i was asked to tackle the financial aspect and the customer relations aspect of projects, most of which I was already doing as a product engineer, so it was an easier transition in that aspect
For insight into other typical career paths in the construction industry, check out our blog.
Q: Do you think your preparedness was mostly because of the prior exposure you had to the different aspects of how these projects all come together?
Derek: Absolutely. Yes. I would suggest anyone starting out get as much exposure to the different aspects of a project as possible because you will always be able to circle back and say ‘i’ve done that’. The confidence level that you get from being exposed to something helps out greatly.
Q: During your time in these different roles were there different skills that you specifically focused on developing or was it mostly again just about that exposure?
Derek: I think every situation is different. So, with the role that I currently have at Clune and actually most of the roles at Clune, we really require you to be well-rounded. You have to have a good estimating background, you have to have good people skills and be easy to get along with but also have a sense of authority and a sense of direction with where you think a project is going.
To specifically focus on developing those skills can be both helpful and difficult, but hands-on experience is paramount. You have to be exposed to the certain things that you will need to do on a day-to-day basis in a new role. You could spend time doing training and coursework and school work but the best training is going to be hands-on and actually getting that experience.
Q: Have you at any point had a mentor throughout your career or someone around you who was able to influence your path and point you in the right direction?
Derek: Absolutely and I would say that you’re going to be hard-pressed to find anyone who is successful in life, not even just in this industry, that doesn’t have a good mentor. Sometimes you choose your mentor and you latch on to someone and you really push the relationship but other times you just get lucky and I was fortunate enough to just get lucky.
When I was a project engineer transitioning to a superintendent, I had a mentor who is now a lifelong friend. He was my direct report and extremely knowledgeable, and I still call him on a regular, weekly basis. We’ve gotten to know each other really well on a personal basis but I respect his opinion and he respects mine.
That relationship specifically has been very beneficial but also in the last two years growing in my role I’ve had several folks that I would call mentors as well. I can call them and I can ask ‘what would you do in this situation’. Oftentimes they bring up options I hadn’t thought about or they’re able to point me in the direction of someone who may be able to give better advice. Having that as a resource is extremely valuable and paramount to success.
Q: For people who have struggled so far to form a relationship where they have a strong mentor, what do you recommend in terms of going out and seeking something like that?
Derek: I mean there are certain personality traits that help, and by that I mean people just need to open themselves up a little bit, don’t be afraid to ask questions and be vulnerable. I know that was something that I struggled with a lot when I was younger. You want to seem like you’re knowledgeable about everything and trust me when I say that you don’t know everything and that there are people out there that know more than you do.
It’s not about what you know now, it’s about what you know in the future and what you can know and what you can learn so don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you find somebody that you trust and respect, don’t be afraid to ask them questions and then oftentimes that can lead to the mentor mentee relationship.
It’s not typically like you point to somebody and you say you are my mentor now. It’s something that you develop over time and I think that that’s something people really need to keep in mind is that there’s patience involved in this. This is a relationship that you’re building after all. It’s not just a quick check in the box, you’re actually trying to develop something meaningful.
Q: Do you personally find your job stressful?
Derek: Yes, there’s a lot of things that are stressful and that can be stressful. As a general statement, and this is the experience that I have with most things, the stress is worth it if you look at it correctly. Usually the thing that’s most stressful is balancing work and life, so time management. You only have 24 hours in a day and sometimes that’s not enough. You’re balancing all these priorities like sleep and free time and often that is where the stress comes in.
With work I’ve found that if you look at it from the right perspective it’s not as stressful as it could be. So, if you look at it as work and you look at it as a pile of tasks that need to be done it becomes more stressful. But, if you look at it as a challenge or you adopt the mentality that it’s a game that you’re trying to win, it becomes more fun than stressful.
It’s weird to explain but it’s really about the perspective and there are many things in this industry that are new and challenging but can be fun as well. It really all comes down to how you look at it, not to say that I don’t occasionally get very stressed out and frustrated just like everyone else does, but I’ve found the older that I get it’s all about the perspective that you maintain.
To read more about different approaches to dealing with stress in the construction industry, check out this blog post.
Q: As you went from project engineer to superintendent and then to project manager has your stress level increased and become more of an important thing for you to consider?
Derek: The short answer is absolutely. With responsibility comes stress, that’s just the natural progression of work. When you are younger you have tasks assigned to you but ultimately it’s your boss’s job to get those tasks done, it’s not yours. They are giving you those tasks and you are doing them to the best of your ability, but it’s their job to look over it and to say if it’s done well or needs to be redone.
As you grow in the industry and you become a boss, you become someone that is responsible for others. Their tasks are ultimately your responsibility so getting them to do those tasks and do them well directly falls onto you and that adds a level of stress to your life if you perceive it that way. But ultimately yes, with more responsibility comes more stress and that comes from a financial standpoint if you’re a project manager, a schedule standpoint from a superintendent, you could pick any role within the industry and the more you have on your plate the more stress that there is.
Q: Through your time rising through these roles did you find that you had any personal strengths or abilities that enabled you to better handle the stress as you had it progress and increase?
Derek: Growing up kind of in the industry, having two parents, one white collar and one blue collar, I came into it with a different perspective. I naturally relate to both, so I can understand when workers are coming in and they have challenges. I understand those challenges, I think, better than most and that’s actually one of the things about the industry that I absolutely love is just the different types of people within the industry.
With my business background, I’ve found it less challenging than others may have balancing budgets and the cost side of projects. I’ve always had an interest in that even before construction and I’ve come to a point where I can excel at saving money and things like that on projects.
I pride myself on being somewhat likable, which seems like it’s an easy thing but it’s a skill, asking the right questions and not being condescending about it. That’s something that you learn by being friendly to someone who’s not friendly to you, which happens a lot in this industry.
Just being able to overcome those types of challenges and actually get the most out of individuals is a skill as well. You’re pushing them in directions to where they are challenging themselves and also benefiting the project or the company. Not to say that there isn’t room for improvement but I definitely pride myself on those aspects and think they’ve helped a lot.
Q: Do you have any brief advice or methods you take in approaching and dealing with others and other teams that you found really works for your style of leadership and management?
Derek: One thing I think that’s become a little lost in life is the ability to see other people’s perspectives; to look at somebody and understand why they think that way or why they believe those things or why they are acting in the way that they’re acting. When you nail down those reasons, typically you can find a common understanding or a common ground and once you find that common ground you can come to an understanding.
They might not agree with your approach for the things that you’re trying to get them to do or the perspective that you have but at least there’s a mutual understanding. Within a project there can be many competing priorities and demands for resources. If you explain your reasoning and take the time to consider others’ as well, you start to understand where each other’s challenges are. Then it becomes a lot easier to come to a mutual understanding and agreement.
For more advice relating to stronger communication as part of construction teams, check out our blog.
Q: Were there any resources or pieces of advice that someone gave you that really shaped or helped your journey through the construction industry?
Derek: My mentor always used to say that the day that he is not having fun in this industry is the day that he’s going to call it quits. That kind of carried over to my perspective and so I always try to keep a positive attitude. As far as resources go, this is such a personal opinion but I don’t think that there are many written resources or online resources or things that are groundbreaking, that help as far as your journey through the industry.
There are good tools that we use to keep us efficient and things like that but as far as a resource to help guide you through your journey in the industry, I don’t know of any that are actually available. It’s not like there’s a book that says ‘this is the book on project management’, ‘this is the book on superintendents’ and you read that and you’ll be a good superintendent. I don’t think that those exist, it’s kind of a journey that you have to take on your own.