The long haul

One of the first things Tom Kraska talks to potential employees about is the tenure of his staff.

His 12 superintendents have all moved up through the general contracting firm, and the company’s 60 employees average 15 years at K&S Associates Inc.

Those numbers are a result of Kraska’s commitment to growing leaders from within the company, which posted revenue of $104 million last year.

“When people come here, I ask them what’s different about places you’ve worked in the past,” says Kraska, the company’s president. “One of the things they like about K&S is that we provide the best possible lower-level management staff we can find. We are developing new managers, future managers within our own system.”

Keeping people for the long haul means hiring employees who are dedicated to the industry and who complement your culture, says Kraska. From there, you have to provide training that will serve them throughout their careers and increase responsibility as it’s earned.

Smart Business spoke with Kraska about how to grow your employees into your company’s future leaders.

Look for people devoted to the industry. We look for people that have made a commitment to this business. And one of the ways you judge that is what type of college courses they’ve taken and what type of degrees they’ve obtained.

We are strictly looking at the college, the degree program. We know a little bit about the construction management programs that are available, and if we don’t, we do a little bit of research to find out what the courses center around, if it’s the type of work we do.

Set expectations during the interview. We look for people that are interested in starting from the ground up and learning the business. We’re not really interested in the prima donnas that come out of school with the attitude that you owe them something.

We look for humble people that are willing to learn, that have a good work ethic. Then we assign them to some of our top managers as assistants … and they learn the business from the bottom up.

I have a tendency to be completely open and honest with people about what they should expect. I generally invite them to spend a day here while we’re working and get a feel for us. While they’re doing that, I watch their expressions, I listen to the questions that they ask and get a gut feeling for whether it’s a fit or not, while they’re doing the same thing.

Generally within the interview process and the job offer, there is a job description that is attached that sets not only the basics out but also the long-term goals and gives people some idea of what we’re looking for and how they’ll be graded or judged, if you will.

Being open and honest about the company is very important, and I think that if you try to sell the position that it’s something that it’s not, you’re just setting yourself up for failure.

Teach new employees the business by working as a team. They usually are assigned to a project manager or senior project manager as support staff, which ties back to that solution of, how I keep my senior people is to provide them good support staff. It’s a nice circle.

The support staff helps me keep my senior-level people so they’re not overwhelmed, and at the same time, the junior people are getting that experience and I’m growing them from within the organization.

(You learn) the business from on-site experience, hands on. Being on site, have your office in a construction trailer, dealing with the trades and seeing the building being built, being part of that team.

As a manager who will later spend most of their time in the office that part of your career that’s spent out in the field is invaluable. I don’t think you can succeed without a good handle on that.

Slowly hand out responsibility. You have to be patient with people. You can’t expect too much right off the bat. You have to limit their authority so that they don’t make any mistakes that get you in trouble. At the same time, you have to give them some freedom so that they can make mistakes and learn from them.

There’s a fine balance there of how much authority you can give them so mistakes don’t have a severe impact.

There are some givens within our management group, [like] our management duties that you don’t let the assistant project manager handle. We categorize the work from experience as to what is safe to be handled, what needs to be reviewed by senior project management, and we just assign those tasks based on that.

Slowly, as people prove themselves, you start to increase their responsibility, increase their authority and, eventually, increase their job description.

It’s the comfort level from the way they’re handling their assignments and feedback we get from our subcontractors, owners, representatives of our clients that we work for. It’s a combination of gut feeling and customers.

Look at employees’ track records to determine whether to promote someone. Look at the success of the employee, the success of their projects, the success of their tasks.

I am not a tenure person. I strictly respond and promote due to their success, and depending on a position, that’s measured in so many different ways.

There are criteria that you have that are completely different than someone in an estimating role or an administrating role or a superintendent role. There are separate criteria that you (use to) gauge their success.

How to reach: K&S Associates Inc., (314) 647-3535 or