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The Art of Building People

By Richard Walker

XL President Richard Walker reflects on the joy derived from giving employees the tools they need to succeed and why the company is committed to helping employees develop their full potential as well as step up as leaders.

XL is a construction company. We build things. But we construct much more than buildings: we also develop people. It’s embedded into our company purpose, which is “we build to improve lives” — a commitment that includes our employees. There’s a lot of joy derived from giving people the tools they need to succeed, in whatever way is personally important for them. And if you help people on their journey, it pays dividends to them and the company over time, as they become more adept as a result.

This is why we invest so much in our employees. We recognize that the true value of any company is its people. Everything meaningful you do within your organization happens through people. Even in a manufacturing company where machines build the product, it’s people who make the decisions that determine the company’s success or failure.

A focus on building people sparks two significant outcomes:

  1. Employees are happier and achieve more out of life. They are better positioned to fulfill their unique dreams, which might include money or status, or possibly a better work/life balance or mastering a specific skill. Whatever it is, working at an organization that invests in them has a ripple effect across their lives.
  2. Employees make a bigger impact on the company, accelerating its success. For many companies, success is defined as profit. But more broadly speaking, it’s also about efficiency, creativity, and effectiveness — all of which are a byproduct of building people and have a direct impact on the bottom line.


The construction industry as a whole focuses primarily on developing technical skills in its people. While that is important, technical skills play a diminishing role as employees climb the ranks. At a certain point in an employee’s promotion journey, a shift happens: they must learn to develop people below them in the necessary technical skills, while they focus on management and leadership skills.

And yet, many organizations continue to overly-focus on technical competency when evaluating people for promotion. Yes, in construction it’s important to know how to build a building, but that’s less central to what makes you valuable as you ascend into more senior positions within the organization. In other words: it becomes less about how you build a building and more about how you build people.

When senior employees fall into the trap of over-relying on technical skills, they often operate at levels below their role and fail to fulfill the function of their new position. This is an industry-wide challenge and one in which we’re investing considerably by training individuals to function optimally in their role, which will further elevate the success of our employees and projects.

Here’s just one example: One of our project executives consistently received feedback from his team that he could hand over more responsibility and rely on them more. They were frustrated that they weren’t being given the opportunity to grow. After a number of conversations and coaching, that individual started delegating and designating more. (To clarify: delegation is handing someone a task; designation is giving them a goal and asking, how can I help you get there?) He started doing both — charging his team with putting together a plan and then helping them to run with it. That approach reflects a higher level of leadership, and the results speak for themselves. The feedback from his team was remarkable: “I’m learning so much more”; “I’m developing and growing faster”; “I’m allowed to carry more of the load and feel fully supported.” What leader wouldn’t want to hear such glowing remarks that reveal how fully their team is thriving?

As employees transition between positions, it can be particularly difficult to know what to let go of. Without more formal guidance, it’s easy to slip into micro-managing, which frustrates teams and holds them back. This can necessitate some hard but necessary conversations, but those conversations often reveal an important truth: It’s less about the person’s need to maintain control and more about them not knowing their value if they let those things go. Helping an employee understand where their evolving value is situated is a huge part of the “building people” process.


What’s the secret to building people? It’s about helping them understand what their current role is and what their future opportunities might include. This need not be a linear career path. Future opportunities come to empowered people, which requires a high level of autonomy and self-direction. What are you trying to achieve? What technical, leadership, and management skills are required? What resources will help you acquire the information and experiences that will help you excel? Growth is not limited by a company’s formal training; it also includes the full-spectrum experiences you seek and engage in as a person.

I recently spoke with a senior superintendent that we promoted. He thanked the leadership team for the promotion and said it validated that he had been doing the right thing: he trusted the company would promote him when the time was right, so he focused his energy instead on how he could be better every day. He sought advice from others, read everything he could get his hands on, and constantly assessed how he could improve in the role he was in. His self-guided drive and initiative was not centered on adding a new title to his resume, but on excelling in his current role.

Building people is not just the responsibility of the company. It also requires participation by individuals who want to invest in themselves.

So, how can you build yourself?

  • READ: Read, read, and then read some more! (Or listen, if that’s more your thing.) Actively thinking about things on a broad and deep scale is at the center of individual growth and development — not just in your personal life, but as a valuable employee. As you rise to a more senior level, thinking beyond your immediate tasks is a necessity to continually add more value for your clients and your company. It gives you the perspective to contemplate bigger picture questions like, What challenges might your clients face in their industries? What resources might your team tap to effectively execute? Acquiring knowledge and awareness breeds excellence, and it doesn’t all happen from 9-to-5.
  • FOCUS: “Be present” is a phrase we hear a lot when it comes to our personal lives, but it’s too often ignored in the workplace. Focus on making yourself better in what you’re doing right now, without worrying about how you will get promoted. What do you need to learn? Where can you dig deeper? Be fully present in your mindset and execution and the next phase will organically come into focus in time.
  • HAVE PATIENCE: Nothing great is built overnight — including you. Take the time to achieve the skills and competencies needed at your current level. If you don’t, those deficiencies will come back to bite you later in your career. Remember: this is a marathon, not a sprint. Give yourself the time and space you need to arrive at each project and role in the best way possible.
  • KNOW WHAT YOU WANT: Your career is about more than a title. Get clear on what you truly want your days to look like — is it more technical? More of a leadership role? Success is driven by staying aligned with what works for you. That might mean a position that is less focused on managing people, or perhaps you recognize that the technical position you’re in doesn’t fully satisfy you. Knowing what you want and staying true to it gives you the best shot of loving what you do every day.
Date Published: 11.08.2021

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