US DNA VP Construction Interview Mark
Interview with Mark Christensen, President of Christensen Building Group
DNA of a VP of Construction
There was a brief period of time were I second guessed my career path, right after being hired by my first employer.
I was assigned to the purchasing department and like many college graduates I thought I was very special. I graduated in the top 10% of my class in college and I was reporting directly to a senior vice president. I thought I was going to have some magnificent assignment where I would be working on special projects and immediately adding value to the company.
Instead, I was put in the contracts department where I would process a stack of paperwork three feet tall that was delivered to me on a cart. My job was to go through and verify that we had the correct signatures and the right boxes checked - I was completely miserable. I sat in a small cube and just reviewed contracts day in and day out. I really questioned if this was the direction I wanted to go.
Fortunately, that experience has proven to be very valuable. The knowledge I was developing of contracts and the in-depth understanding of their structure I was gaining were things that I didn’t appreciate early on. I now look back and I’m really glad I gained that level of understanding and hands on experience with contracts, it plays a huge role in general contracting.
What technical skills do you think are integral to role?
A good understanding of contracts is extremely valuable and not very common. Everything we do is governed by contracts - subcontracts, owner contracts, professional service agreements, insurance, and other laws, rules and regulations. If you understand the language and nature of contracts it will serve you both from a negotiating stand point with new agreements and a risk management perspective while making key business decisions.
What attributes/characteristics do you believe are integral to the role?
One of the quotes we have written on a wall in our office says “Integrity: If you have it, nothing else matters. If you don’t, nothing else matters”. That was told to me by a senior vice president right before I was first relocated to Texas. I’ve carried that saying with me since then.
At the end of the day, the formula for success is based on a few simple tenets: being a good person, telling the truth, having integrity, and working hard. Over the long run, things will shake out in your favor.
I would never say that I am the smartest guys in the room, but I would say I am probably one of the hardest working. I’ve always tried to compensate for any shortcomings I have by putting in the extra effort. I think integrity and a hard work ethic are more important than any technical skillset.
What is your advice to someone who is moving up the ranks in the field and wants to pursue a management/executive career?
You need to spend time in different areas of the business and understanding all aspects of it. A lot of good large organizations try to rotate their up-and-comers through different departments so they understand the field side, pre-construction, project management, even the business side.
I see is a lot of impressive resumes from people that have worked on very large projects, but have not done very much in terms of job variety. They’ve been very focused and played more of a specialty role. Those people tend to be limited in what they can do in a general management or executive position. In order to be in a management/executive level career, you need to understand all the parts and pieces of the business.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
My favorite part of my job is watching the people around my organization have success. I enjoy creating a place where others can come and achieve their own career goals, personal success, and growth.
When you have an environment where other people are excited to go to work, excited to go achieve and feel like there is opportunity for them to grow and develop, there will be a domino effect within your organization. I know that our company will grow and be successful when our people feel like they are growing and achieving personal success.
What is the one thing you have to have to be a VP of a construction company in your opinion?
You have to be able to make tough decisions and have tough conversations. You can probably become a VP without that ability, but I would say it’s hard to be a successful VP or president if you can’t make the tough calls.
How has networking played a role in you achieving your career objectives?
When I look at my own personal success, I could attribute 90% of it to my personal network. My personal address book has 7,000 plus, maybe 8,000 contacts, that have been developed over the last 15 years or so working in this industry. I utilize that network daily to make connections, form business deals, seek advice and council, provide and look for resources. It has been and will continue to be the heart of my success.
How important is social media for networking/helping one achieve their career goals?
I am weak on the social media side, it’s a personal goal to get better. I think LinkedIn has been a great tool and I have a great network there that I’ve started to develop. You can’t ignore the impact of it and the importance of carefully using it to get your name and your brand out there.
Compared to 5 or 10 years ago, in your opinion how would you say your role has evolved?
There is a much greater emphasis in working together as a collaborative, integrated team in lieu of separate business silos (Owner, Designer, Builder) on each project. Technology continues to facilitate this process. As we lose our seasoned industry leaders and receive new young, technologically skilled individuals there is a struggle to pass on the knowledge that has been developed through years of hands on experience. Bringing the two parties together and facilitating an exchange in their respective skill sets has become an important part of my role as a leader. It is an interesting paradigm that we are still working through as an industry.
What does the next generation need to know?
Unplug yourself and go build face to face relationships. You will be more effective in your job and find more satisfaction in your work days by engaging with your industry partners in person. Mix it up and implement some old school hustle and communication into your work life. We need the right blend of new technology and proven work techniques to continue developing our industry.
What advice would you give to the next generation of professionals aspiring to become a construction leader?
Being a leader is about differentiating yourself from the crowd and being someone people can stand behind, follow, and trust. There are a few things you can do to stand out from your peers.
Show up prepared. Have an agenda prepared for every meeting. Make sure you take time to prepare and understand the details. It’s like doing your reading before you go to class - you’re going to get twice as much more out it by reading the details beforehand.
Don’t be afraid to fail. Get out of your comfort zone and push yourself to continually improve what you do and how you do it. Strive to learn new things and be humble along the way. If you are not dropping the ball every once in a while, you are not pushing yourself hard enough.
Finally, lead by example. The greatest leaders show the way, not just point that direction. You will earn more respect from your peers by setting the example and working alongside your team. A favorite quote of mine is, “Titles may be given, but leadership must be earned.” Learn to earn the respect and confidence from others and you will become a leader.