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Paving the Way for More Effective Leaders

A business-driven development program with customized content has helped make Oldcastle Materials’ frontline leaders better.
Paving the Way for More Effective Leaders

After more than 11 years working for Oldcastle Materials, the U.S. leader in the road-paving industry and a leading supplier of aggregate, asphalt, and ready-mix concrete, Jeremiah Lemons is noticing changes. Not changes in the company’s businesses, but in the effectiveness of the organization’s frontline leaders.

“We’ve seen leaders be able to aspire to more in their roles,” says Lemons, a Helena-based general manager with responsibility for 175 employees in Oldcastle Materials’ Montana companies. “I think we’ve seen some increased production and efficiency, and more networking across individual crews.”

Lemons says those positive outcomes are all about changes in leader behavior.

“When leaders better try to understand and listen, they promote engagement. I’ve seen it in managers where they start sharing and supporting others. I’ve also seen the positive outcomes when they start bringing a more personal approach to their interactions with their crew members by being more of a leader and not necessarily the boss.”

More leader than boss. That concept was perhaps a foreign one to many of the frontline leaders who had been brought up in the traditionally hardscrabble culture of road paving and materials, a work environment where crew members were expected to take direct orders from their supervisors without questioning them. And supervisors, for their part, paid little heed to what crew members thought, felt, or needed to know to do their jobs effectively and be optimally engaged and productive.

“The construction industry is known for having a short temperament,” says Andy Rodabaugh, who manages Mountain Enterprises, Oldcastle Materials’ subsidiary in the northern Kentucky market, which encompasses three asphalt plants, three construction crews, and three paving crews. “We want to give you what we want done, we’re going to give it to you right away, and it’s got to happen. But now that’s not necessarily the most effective approach, especially with some of the younger generation coming up. They want to know the ‘whys’ and the ‘hows.’”

As Lemons, Rodabaugh, and others are noticing, however, thanks to a comprehensive leadership development program for Oldcastle Materials’ frontline leaders, that culture is beginning to change.

Smoothing the Road

With its headquarters in Atlanta, Ga., Oldcastle Materials employs nearly 18,000 people at more than 1,700 locations in 50 states and six Canadian provinces. The journey to the successful effort to develop its frontline leaders began in 2011 with an organizational recognition of a critical need. A series of acquisitions had driven steady growth but resulted in an organization that, while operating efficiently, was defined by numerous self-contained entities that tended to act independently. Their independence extended to their approach to leadership.

Scott Collins, Oldcastle’s vice president of talent management, was new to his role at the time and charged with addressing this challenge.

“We clearly needed to unify and integrate a consistent, company-wide leadership development model across all divisions,” he says, pointing out that Oldcastle Materials also needed to upskill its frontline leaders “right where the work happens at the grassroots level.”

Mickey Scherer, vice president of learning and development, adds that the team assembled to partner on the frontline leader development initiative approached it with the belief that frontline leader effectiveness ultimately determines success in operational and safety performance.

“The personal values and behaviors of our frontline leaders need to mirror the company’s. Employees need to understand the way we approach leadership so they know what they are expected to bring to the table.”

Creation of the program began with a series of candid conversations between Oldcastle Materials’ HR team and seven division presidents to validate the need for a frontline leadership development program, and to gather feedback on what that program should entail. Involving the business units was critical for the resulting program to be one leaders believed in and accepted, because they had a hand in shaping it. Support came from the very top of the organization, as Oldcastle Materials’ CEO was committed to talent development and coaching.

With the CEO’s support, a cross-functional team of 17 was organized, drawing from every business unit and geographical area of the company. The team identified the highest-priority training needs, including directing and motivating others, managing and measuring work, process management, customer focus, and problem-solving. They listed and prioritized competencies and then sought feedback from 300 of their frontline leaders.

Rodabaugh was a member of the cross-functional team and says its unwavering focus was on positively impacting the performance of Oldcastle Materials’ frontline leaders.

“How can we make it easier for this guy who’s been running a paving crew for 10, 15, 20 years? We can only buy him so much equipment. We can only [operate] out of certain plants or provide certain materials. We realized we were kind of limited, in certain aspects. But, from a leadership standpoint, we were wide open.”

The team chose titles for the program’s five core modules: Leadership: Building the Foundation, Customers: Our Focus Every Day, Developing People for Peak Performance, Motivating and Directing Others for Success, and Driving for Results. The content would align with results entrusted to frontline leaders, and those results aligned with the performance management process.

While this content mix was solid, a challenge remained: How to make the program relevant across all locations, all divisions, and all the diverse pockets that define the entire, complex organization. One approach fit the bill: customization.

Relating to Crushing Rocks

The leadership development initiative wasn’t Oldcastle Materials’ first. Five years earlier, it had implemented a complete curriculum program and tried to train as many leaders as possible. No significant behavior change resulted, however, in part because participants couldn’t relate to the material. The examples used in the courses, which were from other industries, didn’t make sense to them.

“Our people crush rocks, lay roads, and make things out of concrete,” says Collins. “We wanted content that enhanced a frontline supervisor’s skills and that could speak to a specific line of business.”

The course content needed to be customized, dynamic, aligned with other key organizational initiatives (including Oldcastle’s performance management process), deliver a comprehensive learning strategy, and promote and sustain learning back on the job. It had to link with the core values of safety, quality, and integrity, and accommodate an internal train-the-trainer approach. It also had to look and feel like Oldcastle. Satisfying these criteria was a tall order, but DDI and its CustomWorks group met all the requirements.

DDI’s CustomWorks team blended new material with content from existing courses and added elements that addressed internal partnerships, motivation, and influential leadership. The CustomWorks team also interviewed frontline leaders to develop real-world examples for case studies and skill practices that were incorporated into the courses.

In addition to the core modules, three optional new continuing education modules were developed: Maximizing Team Performance, Making High-Quality Decisions, and Resolving Conflict. The learning is reinforced by post-training sessions in which learners come back together to discuss implementation challenges and share stories. These sessions provide a safe place where leaders can build trust, stay engaged, and reinforce each other’s development.

Rolling It Out

Because Oldcastle Materials is in the road-paving business, its work is seasonal in many parts of the country. “Layoff” time is from Thanksgiving through April, which might seem like the best time for the frontline leaders to go through the training. But, recognizing that leaders need immediate opportunities to apply their new skills on the job, even while Oldcastle Materials is engaged in its busy season, at any given time hundreds of frontline leaders from various divisions and regions are at different points in the training.

Rodabaugh says that one of the best decisions Oldcastle Materials made was to deliver the training in-house, using more than 150 internal people, including himself, as facilitators. These 150 facilitators know the business and have real credibility with participants.

He also says that positioning the program as a way for leaders to acquire new skills and tools they can draw on to be more effective, as opposed to something they had to go through because they aren’t doing a good enough job, was a fantastic way to obtain participant buy-in.

Delivery of the program began in August 2013. Leaders are grouped into cohorts of nine to 12, for maximum interactivity. Each cohort goes through a full-day session of courses and then another full-day session three to four weeks later. In between training, they meet with their manager to receive coaching, and complete assignments that are integrated into their daily work. They are asked to think about takeaways and how they’ll implement changes, and then share plans and develop action items with their manager. Before attending the next session, they meet with their manager again to discuss progress and prepare for the upcoming training.

When a new cohort begins the program, a regional president kicks off the session by providing a high-level overview of the company’s leadership philosophy and emphasizing key themes. At the conclusion of the program, managers, coaches, and the division president attend a graduation ceremony where leaders share stories about what the training has meant to them.

Believing the managers of these leaders would be critical to keeping the development effort alive, managers were initially put through a six-hour session to educate them about the content of the core modules. Learner feedback, however, indicated that these managers also needed training in the same core areas as the frontline leaders. Responding to this need, in 2014 Oldcastle customized the five courses for delivery to the manager audience.

Brandon Lefevre, regional president for Oldcastle Materials’ central division based in Fayetteville, Ark., helped to facilitate these courses for managers and says they have been a valuable addition to the training provided to frontline leaders. He also says that the level of buy-in among those managers was high.

“There was very little skepticism about the value of the program. Most of the supervisors were eager to get a little bit more exposure to it so that they can better support it in their businesses.”

Affecting the Business

Just as Jeremiah Lemons is seeing the impact of the frontline leadership development program, others are noticing, too.

Barnes Barton, a vice president for Thompson-Arthur Paving & Construction, Oldcastle Materials’ subsidiary based in Greensboro, N.C., facilitates all five core modules. He also has a grasp of the program’s big picture.

“The company trained over 1,200 frontline leaders by the end of 2016, as well as 400 mid-level leaders,” says Barton, who points out that, given the number of the trained leaders’ direct reports, the training will touch at least 4,800 employees.

As Barton regularly interacts with participants on the job and asks for feedback about the program, he sees the impact of the program in terms of more than just these numbers.

“I learned leadership skills early as a student at West Point and while serving in the army, and I’m grateful that Oldcastle Materials has made the investment and commitment to train our leaders,” he says. “The leaders enjoy the interactivity of the classes, as it’s rare they get to engage in something like this. It really helps to develop a cohesive team at the local level, and I’ve seen real improvement.”

Rodabaugh, meanwhile, tells the story of a foreman new to his position who initially struggled in the role. But after going through the program and beginning to apply the new skills he learned, he began to thrive as a leader.

“You got guys that are attached to running one piece of equipment or doing a particular job,” he explains. “This foreman was able to make the changes he needed to make to get performance where it needed to be. And he was very successful at it. He did a really good job of selling the whole concept of what he was trying to do. And he directly related that success to what he learned in the frontline leadership program.”

Rodabaugh says that foreman’s experience represents just one example from among many leaders who have improved thanks to the program. “What happens is you take a foreman now who can break down the decisions that he’s made to a crew or to an individual in a way that they kind of understand the ‘why’ behind things. At the end of the day, maybe not everybody is happy with the decision, but at least they understand the ‘why’ part of it.”

Lefevre, who has been with the company for more than 21 years, is also enthusiastic about the changes he’s seen in Oldcastle Materials’ leaders.

“I think the payoff is we’re going to have jobsites that are safer. I think that we’re going to have jobsites that are more efficient and cost-effective. And I also think we’re going to have better talent development and succession at that frontline level, to better position us to keep talent as our business grows and as the workforce changes.

“I’m really pleased with Oldcastle and proud to be part of the organization, to see the investment that they’re making in developing our people to help them be more effective in their jobs now and to better position us for the future.”

“There’s nobody that can affect our business the way these people do,” says Rodabaugh, emphasizing the importance of Oldcastle Materials’ frontline leader population. “Now, we’ve got the training in place to help them out.”


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