Originally posted Friday, 27 March 2015

Written by Owners Perspective

In case you haven’t heard already, COAA marked its 20th anniversary in 2014, and to celebrate this milestone, the association hosted one of the most exciting leadership conferences ever in Nashville this past fall. The location was a nod to COAA’s roots, as the very first conference was held in Nashville, but instead of the 59 attendees who showed up two decades ago, the 2014 conference was packed with 290, which is the best-ever showing for a conference thus far. Held at the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel, the three-day event was jam-packed with dozens of informative sessions and presentations, along with two guided tours, and special guest appearances by the association’s founding leadership.

A Good Start

The conference started off strong with a morning tour of Vanderbilt University’s new College Halls At Kissam. These residences, located just across the street from the hotel, offer students a unique communal environment for living and learning, and the project’s key stakeholders gave COAA members an exclusive guided tour of the properties. When they returned in the afternoon, attendees were treated to a unique presentation and roundtable discussion focused on improving collaboration.

The presentation, “Collaboration: Let’s Discuss It,” was led by a three-person panel containing representatives from COAA, AIA, and AGC, who discussed the ways in which collaboration has evolved over the last 20 years. From there, attendees were invited to participate in two separate “Collaboration Carousels” that featured interactive, roundtable discussions related to collaboration. This was the first time COAA has held a jointly-led presentation run by members of these three organizations, and it set a solid pace for the rest of the conference.

Penn State’s John Bechtel is a member of the COAA Conference Committee as well as the Pennsylvania Chapter President, and he helped organize and facilitate the collaboration sessions. He said that one of the goals of the Carousels was to help engage attendees in conversation, so they would be more likely to continue talking over the duration of the event.

“One goal of the Collaboration Carousels was to begin the conference with a more interactive format that would give attendees a chance to participate in small, open-forum discussions,” said Bechtel. “We hoped that by creating conversations within smaller groups, individuals could make connections early and then continue those discussions throughout the rest of the conference.”

Bechtel noted that he received great feedback on the sessions from attendee evaluations, and this was mirrored by what individual attendees had to say. Attending his first national COAA conference, Dwayne Rush, who is a Project Manager with Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant, said that he learned a lot from his interaction with others during the carousels.

“I found the sessions really informative,” said Rush. “Breaking out into smaller groups for discussion like that was really engaging, and I got to hear the perspective of others in similar roles as myself, which was very educational.”

Sweet Emotion

The opening session on Thursday, “From the Head to the Heart: Emotional Intelligence and Project Success,” also got attendees talking. Led by speaker Brent Darnell, the presentation focused on the importance of fostering effective interpersonal communication within the industry.

While key team members working on any project typically possess plenty of technical abilities, oftentimes these “soft skills” can get overlooked. Darnell explained how using the power of emotional intelligence can make projects more successful, collaborative, and fun. In a business that’s not exactly well-known for producing “people skills,” the session proved quite insightful.

“I thought the session was very effective, particularly for those of us who are more technically oriented,” said Rebecca Koller, Assistant Vice President and Director of Facilities Planning and Management at the University of Nebraska. “Communication is key to successful projects, and recognizing different emotions in ourselves and others is critical to communication. I enjoyed the presentation so much, I downloaded the Tao of Emotional Intelligence.”

Establish Factors

Workforce worries

Another highly popular session was Friday morning’s “Workforce Shortage: Should Owners Care?” Presented by MD Anderson’s Spencer Moore and Holder Construction’s Mike Kenig, the session focused on the lack of skilled tradespeople within the construction industry and how this shortage might affect Owners. Indeed, the workforce shortage issue has been ongoing for years now, and experts predict it’s only going to get worse. The speakers discussed why this problem should matter to Owners and how they can work with others in the industry to not only raise awareness of the issue, but also come up with meaningful solutions.

Koller said that technology might be one way to address the workforce shortage, but like most solutions, there are both good and bad sides to incorporating that option.

Group Photo

“Unless the construction trades are recognized as viable and important parts of our economy, many of those jobs will be replaced by technology,” said Koller. “For example, technology—in the form of precast panels—has mitigated the shortage of skilled masons and actually sped project schedules. However, while the panels may be efficient, both the project design and the resulting human experience suffer.”

Investing in People

Even if you have enough skilled staff, problems can still arise when it comes to effectively managing a project. The Friday session “Evolution of a Design and Construction Department” addressed just such a scenario. Led by Oregon Health and Science University’s Kyle Majchrowski and Bradley Taylor, the session discussed how OHSU addressed the need for its team to more accurately forecast and effectively report on its program budget and cash flow.

Invest In Your People

The solution involved developing PMs into strong leaders, defining and creating a successful culture for communication, and fostering strong interpersonal relationships. Ultimately, what they found was that while developing powerful Owner-driven leadership can be challenging, it’s more than worth the effort.

“The session was very enlightening,” said Rush. “Similar to the emotional intelligence presentation, it explained how every person is different, and understanding that is really important if the team is to work well together. Additionally, the need to standardize processes and programs is vital in a busy work setting.”

Happy Anniversary

Since the Nashville conference marked COAA’s 20th anniversary, it was only natural that organizers would schedule something special to mark the occasion—and they didn’t disappoint. During the opening night reception, attendees were treated to an inspiring speech from COAA founder Al Phillips, who recalled the association’s early days and praised the organization for its steady evolution into the powerhouse that it is today.

After Phillips’ poignant speech, he asked each of COAA’s past presidents—who were all in attendance—to join him up on the stage. Following a brief introduction from Phillips, each of them made their way onstage, until it was filled with the entire two decades’ worth of leadership. Once they were all assembled, COAA’s current president, Kevin Lewis, proposed a toast to Phillips as well as the entire association, and everyone raised their glasses high. The moment was one of the conference’s definite highlights, stirring even COAA’s veteran members.

“I was moved by the fact that all of the past presidents were in attendance,” said Bechtel. “And it was inspiring to hear Al Phillips tell the story behind this great organization, offer insights as to why COAA was formed, and connect us to the discussions from the founding members.”

The inspirational nature of the speech enthused even those attendees who are just getting started with the association.

“While I am relatively new to COAA and this was my first national conference, the anniversary speech was very meaningful,” said Rush. “It gave me a real feel for the growth the organization has experienced over the past 20 years, which I found both interesting and impressive.”

COAA Speach

According to COAA’s first president, Norm Neiterman, these are the types of reactions—and interactions—that make COAA conferences so valuable. By bringing together such a diverse collection of people—young and old, veterans and newcomers, Owners and fellow industry professionals—the conferences have the power to educate, motivate, and connect members like nothing else.

“The interaction between attendees has always been very important to me,” said Neiterman. “At these conferences, the folks love to share their successes—and failures—with their peers and talk openly and honestly about them. In this way, we can learn a great deal from one another.”

For those members unable to attend COAA’s Nashville conference, the presentations are available on COAA’s website, www.coaa.org. To access these files, log in and select “Members Only Content” and then “Archives.” While you’re there, don’t forget to reserve your spot at the 2015 Spring Owners Leadership Conference, which takes place May 13-15 in Baltimore.