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HammerTech Talks

HammerTech Talks with Kabri Lehrman-Schmid, Project Superintendent, Hensel Phelps

By Georgia Bergers on September, 16 2020
HammerTech Talks | Kabri Lerhman-Schmid Project Superintendent, Hensel Phelps
In this episode:
  • Psychological safety and it's role in the next frontier of Hensel Phelps' safety programs
  • The golden recipe for keeping your crews safe while delivering work more quickly
  • Implementing mental health and bias programs to support your project teams
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Georgia:

HammerTech Talks is a chance for you to join me as we dig into the world of construction pros to find out what makes them tick and helps them succeed. This series will open the door to an industry that we're passionate about and to showcase the amazing people and ideas that are the infrastructure to building great things. Construction folk love a story and a laugh. So we're going to have some fun and you'll take away new perspectives to improve your operations and help create the next normal in construction. For those of you who don't know us, we're HammerTech, we're a cloud based, performance and productivity platform, ensuring safety, quality, and operational efficiency. Let's get into it. So today we're talking with Kabri Lehrman-Schmid who is a Project Superintendent at Hensel Phelps on the Seattle airport expansion project. What a time to be working on an airport program with everything going on, Kabri. Thank you very much for joining us.

Kabri Lehman-Schmid:

Thank you.

Georgia:

So aside from having the technical know-how of a superintendent who's leading a team of circa 300 craft, Kabri's energy to find time to be, and also create opportunity for the next generation in construction to me is a super power. One of the most wonderful things about construction is being surrounded by people who are really passionate and I mean nerdy passionate about what they do. And so I was really pleased to be introduced to you, to come across yet another person who is really passionate about some of the things that I'm really into, but far more expert when it comes to people, collaboration and inclusion in construction. So we're going to explore a few things around that today and so I just wanted to know Kabri, with everything going on, what do you do for fun and how do you make time for it?

 

Kabri Lehrman-Schmid:

That is a good question because in construction, even when there is not a pandemic going on, it is challenging to find time. But luckily we live in beautiful Washington, that's where I'm located in Seattle. 

 

Georgia:

Awesome. And so building on that question, how do you create time to be the change and create those opportunities in construction? My experience of working with site teams is that they are incredibly time pressured and any remaining time is really spent with family. So how have you created that time, whether it's with your employer or driven by your own. I'd love to hear more about that.

 

Kabri Lehrman-Schmid:

Sure. So it definitely comes down to prioritization. I do work 60 to 70 hours a week when it's not crunch time towards the end of a project when it's greater. I sometimes work shift work and I do have a spouse and two children under 10 and home, but what I've found is that any opportunities that I get to choose to use towards creating relationships or creating an environment that I can take back to my project is my project team that serves the industry and serves the work that I'm doing, then it's a win win. So I've never found that me choosing to spend time on any extracurricular activities associated with my passions have not served me when I come back to the project. It's only made things up more productive or easier, or it's starting to change the industry for the better.

 

Georgia:

So, like you, I see many opportunities to improve our industry and it's a really incredible time where there's a shift and a lot of unknowns. And while that can be quite scary for a lot of people, and it has been really tough on the economy and a lot of people, there is an opportunity to change the way we've always done things at the moment, and I wanted to offer some thought to talk about at our next piece. And that's sort of by human nature where it commonly leads us to want to discreetly package up issues rather than address and work with their inter dependencies, and sometimes this can lead us to taking an ineffective approach when we're really trying to make systematic and cultural change. And an example of where this presents itself in, in my opinion is to do with diversity, equity and inclusion and mental health.

And I've only recently learned about the application of psychological safety in the workplace. And I've noticed that you've done a lot of work in this space and that's something that you're bringing into your leadership and into how you work with your teams to foster performance and belonging. So I wondered if you could tell us a little bit more about this concept of psychological safety.

 

Kabri Lehrman-Schmid:

Sure. So the topic of psychological safety is an increasingly common one in the business and organizational management world. There are quite a few Ted Talks about it. If you Google it that you can choose from, but I'm in construction so I've had to figure out a way to apply it to this career. Psychological safety addresses how comfortable a person feels within their organization or team so that they can bring their full self to the table. As a superintendent, the way that I approach my work is about teaming and facilitation. I love talking to people face to face. We work together to find solutions. We find what that person has an expertise in, and we bring that to the table so that we have a better product in the end. So we need to make sure that everybody really comes to the table with the best information that they are willing and able to offer it up.

 

So if you think about in construction, if a crew member is unable to be fully present at their tasks, if one person on my crew is unable to be fully present and their ability to make choices to be the safest and most productive crew member are compromised, so if that one person is compromised, it impacts the entire crew's ability to be safe, their ability to deliver creative or quality work, which as a superintendent, my role is to provide quality and timely work. And I need to make sure that people go home safe at the end of the day.

 

So the question is, with psychological safety, why is that person not able to contribute their full self? Why is their presenteeism jeopardized? Why aren't they in the game? And psychological safety is starting to understand that something is impacting their ability to feel safe on their team, on their projects. And what I've found is that in these COVID times with the pandemic around us, it's actually become more relevant and easier to talk about psychological safety because for me, psychological safety addresses the impact of bias and addressing mental health on the job site. And those are two topics that are stigmatized that we don't often talk about, we don't know how to talk about, and there are not a lot of resources specific to the construction industry.

 

Georgia:

How did you identify there was a gap when it came to addressing this at a site level? We spoke a while ago that you saw a disparity and lots of resources that just weren't suitable for the field environment.

 

Kabri Lehrman-Schmid:

So as a superintendent with a relationship focused approach, I've found that there is value to working to understand topics that impact the people that I'm working with every day that are topics beyond what the schedule is telling me or what material is available. So first in my career experience to become a superintendent I've really been instilled with a deep respect and passion for the steel trades training and hiring a more diverse workforce is a challenge right now. We aren't creating an environment that is psychologically safe enough for people to want to join the trades. I have posted statistics recently on social media about the challenges of a high rate of suicide in construction, as an example.

 

And one of the responses to that information was, "Why would you put this out there? We're already having a hard time with getting people into the trades." And I'm like, "We need to talk about this. We need to create an environment where people feel that, yeah, you're working hard. You are working physically hard. It is a challenging, it's a dangerous industry at times, but you're taken care of." And so working to find a way to create an environment where we are actively recruiting people, because it is a good place to work. So one, it's creating an environment that is more welcoming, more respectful so that we can keep people coming into this industry. Two, being a female superintendent in particular, I'm not a social person, but I found that when I was promoted into this position, that I really felt strongly, I needed to be a role model and being a female superintendent, being that it is rare, allows me to have opportunities to use my voice.

             

People want to hear what I have to say about it and that gives me opportunity that I need to take advantage of to be able to change the industry. So I saw that there was an ability to make change by using the position and the privilege that I had in this role. And then, because my day is so focused on keeping people physically safe and everything we do 24/7 is how to do things safely and keep people physically safe. I started recognizing that there was a gap with keeping people mentally and emotionally safe. Now construction does have the second highest suicide rate in the United States if you're looking at occupations and to bring that a little bit more hyper-local, to understand the impact, here in Washington, 125 lives were lost to suicide in the construction industry in 2018, that's compared to six people who we lost on the job injury. We work tirelessly to keep people physically safe, but what is the impact of those that we've lost because of challenges to their mental health, people who have felt excluded or not being able to bring their safest most productive person to work.

 

Georgia:

That's incredible. Thank you for sharing. So I guess we can look at this from two ways. We can look at the hyper-local from the project point of view, and then we can look at an organizational view. I know you've had a lot experience of implementing programs and working with industry programs to address and create an environment that is more psychologically safe. So could you tell us a little bit more about from a project level and then also at an industry level, what sort of resources you're using and some examples that are available out there?

 

Kabri Lehrman-Schmid:

Sure. So my involvement with industry organizations was because I couldn't find the tools to create action at the job site. I am not so much a fan of going in and having involvement in an organization if we can't pull something back and apply it. So what I've been working with are a few organizations here in Seattle who are specifically trying to provide toolkits to use on the job site to create action, to addressing mental health as well as addressing bias at the job site level. So my goal is to be deliberate about the information I bring back.

 

I run a little world here. I mentioned I have over 300 skilled craft onsite. We have staffs including salaried up to 400 people who have been working since March and we're all just here making sure we're putting in the work and getting our job done. But I can make small actions that can make big changes. I can be very clear about my expectations for workers on the job site. We provide resources within our job site that aren't necessarily usually talked about right now. We have a banner about suicide awareness up in our main space with resources. We have in the porta-johns minority mental health month resources, which is here in July, as well as LGBTQ mental health resources posted because people can then access them privately.

 

We've had small group breakout sessions talking about the risk factors of suicide in construction. And when we did, when I broke people down into 25 people, I had four men standing up and sharing their own personal experience, just bringing these topics to the table. It doesn't take a big initiative. It doesn't take a week focus. As you start talking about the topics of mental health or about racism or sexism, it just becomes part of conversation. And that's my goal is to use the work that I'm doing in local initiatives and industry groups to create easily accessible toolbox talks, or posters that people can use to change the conversation at the job site level.

 

Georgia:

I love the example of acknowledging that sometimes you need to make the most of a private space, and then there's also a space for sharing depending on the type of information and how you're wanting people to be able to absorb them and reflect on them. So who are some of these groups and what is it individually that they're offering? I think it was CIASP is one that you work with and the AGC is another.

 

Kabri Lehrman-Schmid:

So CIASP is an organization that's focused on bringing awareness to suicide prevention. So Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention that has resources and tools available online right now, https://preventconstructionsuicide.com/ where you can go get toolbox talks and you can go get posters and banners and stickers to be able to start talking about mental health on your job site. So that's a great organization that my task force works with. So I am co-chair of the Washington Suicide Prevention and Construction Task Force where a group of local advocates from general contractors, from union representation, merit shop organizations that are focused on creating a toolkit that organizations can use to adapt to their own policies. We see psychological safety as really the next step in how we're going to treat our people in the safety context of our job sites. We feel that we're addressing HR issues, safety issues, legal issues, and leadership training by focusing on overcoming the stigma of mental health. So we are teamed with the University of Washington's Forefront Suicide Prevention program and I actually gave my first webinar yesterday on suicide prevention in construction. So that was a success.

 

Georgia:

Congratulations. That's awesome.

 

Kabri Lehrman-Schmid:

Thank you. One of the other organizations is the Associated General Contractors of America. Here in Washington an initiative called Culture of CARE started a few years ago and has since been deployed by AGC National which is just so wonderful. And Culture of CARE is a program that's focused on creating respectful workplaces, how to address differences, how to address race and sex and sexual orientation and how to create an environment where your apprentices are taken care of. So it addresses mental health, it addresses respect, it addresses suicide prevention and really provides a larger umbrella where you can start to discuss topics and gather resources on how to create a safer, more psychologically safe environment. That just brings benefits, bottom line benefits to your job site. It just also helps me put my work in place if somebody is happy that I'm creating a good relationship and I understand where a person's coming from, then it just benefits how my project gets built in the end so it's a win-win there.

 

Georgia:

Yeah, absolutely. A question that I like to end on is around what's your hope for the future of construction, and then I'd love to ask you about career after that. What are your hopes for construction over the next 10 years? What are the big priorities for you?

 

Kabri Lehrman-Schmid:

I think for me it is seeing how the topics of mental health and overcoming bias are really put into action. I am one voice that's bringing that information in, but I'm trying to be the conduit to give it to people who can take more action. I'm a superintendent at a job site level and while I'm involved in implementing things corporately for my nationwide company, I'm facilitating with relationships the sharing of this information which I think is going to have a greater impact. I used to be told that it was a waste of time, or I was paying attention to too much drama on my crews to listen to them tell me things that aren't associated with work, but my work got done faster and my crews were happier. And I'm not a social person, like I mentioned, I'm not sitting there just shooting about what happened on the weekend or just talking about nonsense. I'm listening for what is actually happening and asking specific questions.

 

So my hope is to one, be a role model for bringing a little bit more empathy and more understanding of topics of mental health to the industry so that other people see that it's okay to do the same. My hope is to continue to create toolkits so people can readily take this information. They won't see it as a burden because we need to change how we use the already existing processes and procedures we use for physical safety every day, and incorporate how do you overcome bias and address mental health. An example would be in our emergency action plan, which every project has, what would happen if there was a death by suicide on your job site? You have a situation for earthquakes, you have it for a major injury, okay, let's go a little bit farther. And I think that if everybody starts talking about these resources there'll be more available because we need to bring in more people into this industry and it's such a great industry to work in.

So my hope is to make a little bit of change, to make it more welcoming and really show how we take care of people.

 

Georgia:

Thank you for sharing that. So as you mentioned, construction is a wonderful place to work in. Could you share a piece of advice for those considering a career in construction? Not necessarily out of school, maybe someone wants a change. Why construction and why the superintendent track?

 

Kabri Lehrman-Schmid:

Sure. Construction is all about working as a team and solving puzzles together. It is about making connections between tasks, think of a schedule, not making logic ties between how things work and it's about sleuthing out the information to get there, making money by doing it, but creating something that really every piece of hard work you've put into it, there is a physical ... there's a building standing at the end of it. You get to talk to some amazing people who are excellent at a specific skill and learn from them.

 

So it's learning every day. It's being part of a team. It's continually being challenged. It's grouping your life into different successes with each project and going through struggles with each project team, but coming out feeling stronger for it. I think that my recommendation for those in construction, or a piece of advice to leave you with is that recognize the value of connecting with the people around you. I work in a lot of aviation projects and I succeed at them because how I pay attention to the stakeholders, how I pay attention to the public, how I make sure that I am prioritizing specific questions when I'm working with the people around me, with my trade partners, I'm trying to understand what they need, that they can come and contribute to the process that I'm creating an environment where they feel capable and wanting to do that. And then I'm following up on commitments. So make those connections, provide follow up, stand with integrity and find success and have a lot of fun while you're working a lot of hours.

 

Georgia:

Yeah, have a lot of fun is definitely a part of it. I think it's one of the funniest industries that you can work in. While we're quite serious and passionate, I think there's always time for a laugh, even in the most intense situations.

Thank you so much for your time, Kabri. It was an absolute pleasure speaking with you.

 

Kabri Lehrman-Schmid:

You as well. Thank you.

 

 

 

 

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