Construction: More about building people than projects

Assembling a team of great people who contribute at their highest level will deliver results that exceed expectations

I learned from a young age that being a contractor meant you were serious about your work.

Having been born from generations of contractors, I had many notions about what a construction company was. My grandfather and nearly all of my uncles had been, and continue to be, contractors. These people were tough as nails – they were hard working, had calloused hands and sore backs. But they were driven to build projects. Being serious about work meant that you did not speak of pain, feelings, ideas or how you might think something could be done differently. You certainly didn’t share personal thoughts about your life. I don’t remember a time when my family smiled a lot, laughed or showed much emotion. In fact, it was quite the opposite. You were there to work and to get things done, not necessarily to enjoy it. It seemed to me that if you wanted to be in construction you had to be tough, smart and hold a stiff upper lip.

Over the course of my career, I have worked with some of the smallest and largest construction companies in the world. They have all demonstrated to me the importance of being smart, tough and nimble. These are crucial qualities for any team. These companies have also demonstrated that being vulnerable is not always welcomed or appreciated in the industry. This lack of vulnerability is a large contributor to high employee turnover rates. If there isn’t honest and collaborative communication or the encouragement to share ideas, we would just be left with an average project.

At the inception of my company I had one vision – I wanted to create a construction company unlike any I had experienced before. I asked myself, “What if we focused on building people first and projects second?”

These are the keys that have been the bedrock of our company and have been proven true many times over:

Diversity of Strengths

Giving room for celebrating each person’s unique skills, personalities and talents fosters a more creative and intuitive atmosphere. It’s amazing to see people excel in innovative problem solving, creating more streamlined systems, policies and procedures because they have been encouraged to use all the skills that they bring to the table.


Over-emphasizing communication to make sure people know their thoughts are valued and that you want them to contribute is important. People often worry that speaking up might have a poor outcome, but the truth is that when dealing with challenges, reasonable people can come to reasonable outcomes most of the time. Over time, I have found that fostering open communication creates a strong and trusting team.

Additionally, when you have something that you need to say, you just say it. The premise is to give voice to what’s bugging you, get it off your chest and then work together to find a solution.


In the light of being communicative, people should trust the process of sharing, and trust that their team will be supportive. Vulnerability and trust should be encouraged. Admittedly, being vulnerable can be scary, but many times you will find that until you lean on each other, express your needs and even ask for help, your team stays in the mantra of “every man for himself.” That mantra destroys a team! As a team, check your egos at the door and know that each person provides value and contributes to the team. Ultimately, this provides your company an inherent ability to tackle complex and diverse problems.

Freedom to Exceed Expectations

Learn to release: Release being afraid that there won’t be enough of the right people and release being afraid to let people go to where they need to be, both personally and professionally. When a company seeks to invest in, buildup and strengthen their team, the team members feel the genuine sense of care. They perform more confidently knowing that they are valued and supported for who they are – not just for their degree or talents. There is a sense of freedom and power that’s created when a team knows their skills, talents and knowledge, as well as when and how to use these qualities. By building up people, a project’s success will follow. Building people produces results … results that exceed expectations.

As evidence to support these key ideas, over the last year our staff has doubled and any issues that have come up are quickly resolved. Although our staff has grown and changed over the years, we have been able to move some big mountains by continuing to grow together.

Although the complexities of your company’s projects will grow and the challenges will rise, they should become second to building your people. The philosophy of people first and projects second has proven that it works, only when people are free to contribute all of themselves. With great people contributing at their highest level, project success is inevitable. It may not always be easy or even fun, but it is a worthwhile endeavor, with long-lasting rewards.

Mike Nieto is the owner of Catworks Construction and Board president of the Southwest Washington Contractors Association. Catworks Construction is a minority-owned general contractor headquartered in Battle Ground, Wash.

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