Being a Leader / Careers and Work

Leaders See Talent in Imperfection

"woman leader"By Dicky Sykes

Last month I learned of the passing of construction industry giant, John A. Cavanagh, former Vice Chairman of AMEC Construction Management, Inc. and Chief Operating Officer of Morse Diesel International, Inc., my former employers. When I heard the news, the memories came flooding down like a landslide. I was deeply saddened for his immediate and extended family because John was not only a great husband, father and grandfather, he was a great mentor and a great leader who saw talent and potential in those who didn’t come with perfect credentials and he gave them opportunities. I was one of those who directly benefited from his ability to see potential, develop talent and grow a leader.

Although it was over 20 years ago, I remember the day I interviewed with Morse Diesel as if it were yesterday. It was profound because I was interviewing with a construction management company and I knew very little about construction. I was coming from a professional accounting firm where my primary experience was in developing spreadsheets. However, after a three hour interview, without prescreening from several recruiters, I was hired on the spot and the rest is history. It went on to become an extremely beneficial working partnership for both me and the company and one of the best jobs of my entire career.

Executives of the company listened to my story, looked into my eyes, and saw transferable skills, talent and unbridled potential. These leaders saw talent where others would not have dared look. John Cavanagh, Irwin Wecker, Phil Undank, Steve Pressler and Dan Kolakowski mentored and guided me. I was allowed to expand the diversity department but more importantly my skills and talent were utilized in diverse and strategic assignments: corporate training and communications, verbal presentations, business development, marketing campaigns and community relations. I was given power and allowed to take risk and these risks paid off for us all. The company’s many awards and accolades and my hard work and their belief in me, eventually led me to the hallowed halls of executive leadership.

The New York Building Congress gave a brilliant run down of John Cavanagh’s career success, Chairman of the New York Building Congress and President of the Building Trades Employers Association of New York City (BTEA) and the list goes on and on but this alone does not share with you how his actions directly impacted a person’s career trajectory. As an African American women in a white male dominated industry, I would never have gone on to become one of New York’s most prominent champions of construction diversity without John’s and the other executives belief in me and their advocacy on my behalf. For all those reading this article, invest in mentorship; invest in someone who has unbridled potential but who may not come with perfect credentials. See in others what John, Steve and Irwin saw in me.

During my tenure with AMEC/Morse Diesel, I saw lots of talent in imperfection, hiring the project secretary to be my assistant. Years later, that same woman is handling supplier diversity for many construction companies in New York City. I also hired a woman who is now in a primary leadership role for The City of New York. I saw potential back then where others dared not look. According to the Secretary of Labor, Hilda L. Solis, there are three million jobs going unfilled because people do not have the skills that many companies are looking for. Are none of the unemployed citizens of America capable of doing the many jobs these companies have? Are none worthy of a chance, an opportunity? Has anyone other than recruiters talked to these individuals, has anyone looked into their eyes and saw unbridled potential?

The man who manufactured steel and built the formidable American steel industry was Andrew Carnegie. By age 24 Carnegie becomes Manager of the Pennsylvania Railroad where he had started working as Tom Scott’s assistant at the age of twelve. Dirt poor and without any formal education, just a dedicated mentor in Scott, Superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad who saw his potential, Carnegie went on to become know as the king of steel and one of America’s leading businessmen in the late nineteenth century. However, his life’s trajectory would have been very different without Scott’s mentorship. You, are in a much better position because your potential mentees aren’t arriving dirt poor and without any formal education.

Leaders see potential where others do not. Leaders develop, nurture and foster leadership attributes in others. A leader is not great when they can only nurture, shape and grow perfection. The American job market has fundamentally changed. Take for instance the manufacturing sector. The majority of a manufacturing company’s machines are run my high tech computers. Industry leaders have stated that they’re having difficulties finding qualified help. The difference is, years ago, people with less than perfect credentials were given training. They were given the opportunity to learn some skills on the job. When I heard of John’s passing, I knew not only had a great leader passed away but also a type of leadership that saw talent in less than perfect credentials and knew how to develop it. John was more than a builder of buildings, he help build lives.

Dicky Sykes can be reached at www.dgsconsultingllc.com

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