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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective General Contractors

Times have certainly changed over the last several decades. When our fathers and grandfathers were heading up large-scale construction projects, the key factors for success were experience in the field, a strong work ethic, and the reputation they’d earned with the guys who swung the hammers and drove the dump trucks. 

And, while those qualities are still just as vital today as they were back then, the responsibilities of a general contractor have expanded quite a bit, so the skills needed to succeed have necessarily changed as well. At this point, qualities like a strong work ethic and earned respect are just the starting point. The modern GC needs to cultivate other qualities and habits that complement the expectations that come along with the complex, large-scale construction projects of the 21st century. 

While there are certainly more than seven of these habits or skill sets we could discuss, a popular book from a few years back made our title inevitable. So, consider the following list as examples: valuable for what they are, but also as a means to spark your own thought process around the sorts of habits you should be incorporating into your own workday. 


Habit 1: Duplicate past successes

Modern construction moves incredibly fast. Speed and efficiency are constant requirements as the era of instant gratification impacts everyone’s mindset. So, there’s certainly no time to waste throughout the construction workflow. 

That’s why established workflows and processes that have been tested and honed over time are a must. Any part of a project’s lifecycle that can be standardized and systemized can be optimized. But, only if you routinely revisit those systems and workflows, determine what worked well on the last job, and duplicate that success going forward. 

For instance, contractors can use their historic performance as "intellectual property" to help predict future performance. Conceptual estimating is a good example of this. If you are bidding a data center that will start next year, can you pull from similar data centers completed last year and before? If nothing else, your own data can serve as a sanity-check to give you more confidence when providing a quote to the owner.


Habit 2: Choose subs and employees wisely

More than ever before, the skills of each individual working on a project will have an impact on the whole thing. That’s because the entire construction workflow is far more interconnected than it used to be (see Habit 4 below). Technology plays a huge role, but it’s also because efficiency and cost control demands that you do more with less.

So, erase any preconceived notions you have when considering who to hire as an employee or sub — race, gender, age, etc. — and focus completely on the factors that will actually determine their (and your) success: experience, expertise, and aptitude. 


Habit 3: Delegate, delegate, delegate

If you’ve done well with Habit 2, then this one will come easier. If not, it’s going to be tough. But, there’s no getting around it: there’s simply too much that needs to get done every day over the course of a project for you to even attempt to handle it all yourself. In fact, handling any of it on your own can be dangerous. 

Instead, build a strong team around you that you can rely on, make sure they have the tools, resources, and knowledge they need to do the job well, then get out of their way and let them get to work. 


Habit 4: Promote a connected jobsite

These days, the more connected your jobsite is, the more efficient and profitable your project will be. It’s really that simple, all other factors being equal. The term “connected jobsite” refers to the extent to which everyone working on your project has access to the information they need to do their job well. 

Practically speaking, on the modern jobsite, that means using hardware and software tools that can interact with 3D constructible models and supporting documentation, especially via mobile devices. It can also extend to tools for jobsite management, safety and security, and even asset and tool management. The number and variety of available tools can be staggering, but choosing the right ones for your unique circumstances and workflows is vital to maintaining high quality along with speed and efficiency.


For more information on this topic, download a free copy of The GC’s Guide to the Connected Jobsite


Habit 5: Encourage efficiency

As already noted, speed is of the essence on modern construction jobs. And, owners are understandably cost-conscious. But, sacrificing quality to save time or money is a poor strategy that’s going to ruin your reputation and your business. So, identifying and creating efficiencies is really the only choice available to general contractors looking to improve profitability. 

Once again, technology plays a crucial role here. For example, field studies have proven that one skilled layout technician working with a Robotic Total Station (like the Trimble RTS 773) can layout four times as many points at 1/8th the cost per point when compared to the traditional method of a two-person team working with tape measures and levels. Now, does an RTS unit and the software to run it require an upfront investment? Yes. But, at that level of efficiency, how long would it take to recoup that investment and begin profiting? 

There are a number of modern construction technology solutions that boast similar paths to ROI through increased speed and productivity, as well as decreased impact from human error, and reduced rework and waste.


Habit 6: Stay in close contact with the owner

While it’s relatively easy to allow the minutiae of running a large-scale project to consume your workday, effective GCs have to remember that they have a responsibility to the owner as well. They’re paying the bills, and they deserve to be kept up-to-date on how the project is progressing. 

Fortunately, “there’s an app for that” too. As long as it’s established early on — preferably right in your contract — you should be able to use a standardized set of reports that can be easily generated from one or more of the software tools you’re using to manage the project. Have them generated at a set time every week (or whatever schedule you and the owner agree on), take some time to review the report yourself and add any explanatory comments or clarifications you deem necessary, then pass it along to the owner.  

Not only does this habit improve your client relationship and eliminate nasty surprises that can cause frustration, but it gives you a valuable opportunity to shine the best light on circumstances as the project progresses. And, it enhances transparency, providing some legal protection as well.


Habit 7: Prioritize the data

Finally, as several of the habits have alluded to, it’s important to establish a healthy respect for modern construction management technology and, more specifically, the data it allows you to collect, analyze, and put to use. If you view all this data as a necessary evil and nothing more, you’ll never be able to harness its full potential or put it to good use. Your reputation and your revenue will both suffer as a result. 

On the other hand, if you embrace the vast amount of data you can potentially have at your fingertips and recognize its value as both a tool for this project and as a means of optimizing future projects as well, then you’ll have come full circle in our list of the 7 Habits, meaning you’re well on your way to being counted among modern construction’s Highly Effective General Contractors. 


For more information on this topic, download a free copy of The GC’s Guide to the Connected Jobsite