Think Like a Leader Interview with Tom Soles, Executive Director of the New Horizons Foundation

August 9, 2021

Thank you for joining us for this conversation in ELECTRI International’s Think Like a Leader series. Today we are interviewing two very successful executives. Tom Soles is Executive Director of the New Horizons Foundation, the trade association foundation founded by SMACNA, our sheet metal counterpart. Josh Bone is Executive Director of ELECTRI International,  the foundation established by NECA.

Both organizations are very successful trade association foundations. Their leaders really do have their finger on the pulse of their separate sub-specialty industries, and together the construction industry.

ELECTRI: Tom, what trends in the construction industry are having the most impact on your members and the way they’re doing business as we move through the 2020’s?

Tom Soles: First, we have an aging population. So, we’re losing a lot of field and shop talent, not just leadership talent. This was exacerbated by the move to retirement during COVID in 2020.

We did a study last year on leadership succession, and the timing was fortuitous. Many companies are not prepared. Combined, the acceleration toward retirement and the aging population is one of the biggest issues that our members face.

 ELECTRI: Josh, where do you see the biggest issue for the electrical side?

Josh Bone: Hands down, the labor shortage is number one. Beyond the labor shortage, we see  technology advances happening in the industry, and the pace of change around that.

Electrical contractors are struggling with so much change happening so fast. Everyone is trying to figure out how to navigate the technology minefield and they’re all trying to keep up with that pace of change.

A lot of uncertainty and fear comes along with it. Those are some of the things that we’re trying to address to help our contractors navigate where the EC industry is heading.

ELECTRI: Tom, do you think the technology issue is harder on the electrical side than for your people?

Tom: No, I wouldn’t say that. I would say it’s different. All our members have a fabrication manufacturing component. They fabricate a product that then is assembled and installed. The technologies are different, and the handoff, the lean practices, are too.

We are now finishing a research project study with Arizona State University on the adoption of new technologies. It really examines any kind of change process.

There are all these components that impact the adoption of new technologies. And it’s not a static field. Look at the software component and look at some of the big players out there. There are all sorts of changes all the time. And it’s difficult. Our contractors are closing out projects, bidding on new projects, starting work, managing work, hiring successful people, and then trying to implement new technologies. It’s a phenomenal task.

 ELECTRI: We hear people say, “That’s something NECA should be doing” or “That’s something SMACNA should be doing”.  Josh, how do you see ELECTRI’s role in helping to address industry challenges? How is that role different for you as a leader of the foundation, as opposed to what NECA has to accomplish on its side?

Josh:  I see ELECTRI as the forward-looking side of this. Where is the industry heading? What trends are impacting our contractors?

ELECTRI is on the front end, providing a path for NECA. We, the foundation, provide a lot of peer-to-peer opportunities to learn from one another. We are clearing the path through our leaders and the thought leaders who we work with to help guide our contractors on the NECA side of the construction world.

ELECTRI: Tom, is that how you see it?

Tom:  Our foundation is strategic, forward thinking. The association tends to be operational oriented.

But, that’s not always the case. Our joint COVID productivity study with ELECTRI and NECA last year is operational. It was a hands-on type of business. It’s gathering those facts that makes action possible. It doesn’t always work to put things in a particular bucket. 

ELECTRI: Some projects clearly require the expertise of outside researchers. But both of you rely a lot on participation by members of your industry. Tom, as a leader, what steps do you take to encourage participation in your activities and research initiatives? How do you get your people to want to do it again? And then again?

Tom: We have a fairly robust Summit Council of contractors and chapters. Every project, study, or white paper had an oversight Task Force, comprised of contractors working with staff, me and the researcher.

We used to limit that oversight committee to major contributors. Three years ago, I began reaching out to those who didn’t contribute, to try to entice them and make them more knowledgeable about the work of the foundation.  And it’s working.

Now, we have more interest, particularly with younger workers at our member companies, project managers, senior staff. We’re reaching out to them and it’s not simply the principal executive of the firm who gets engaged. It’s having a wonderful effect in terms of spreading the word about what the work of the foundation is all about.

 ELECTRI: Do you look at it the same way, Josh? Is that your approach for ELECTRI?

Josh: What astonishes me is how the busiest people find time to give the most back and contribute the most. They make sure their people are in position to help us. If we’re doing research on prefab, then they’re going to have their prefab managers involved. If we’re going to be talking about estimating, they’ll help by providing us with estimators.

When you look at what these foundations do, there’s a lot of close relationships and the people involved learn a lot from each other. There’s a give and take – a healthy relationship.

That’s one reason we continue to build that intellectual capital and provide that knowledge and shared camaraderie. We know we can turn to each other and help each other out on the ELECTRI Council. From our standpoint, I think it’s going to continue to help us create a high level of engagement.

ELECTRI: Tom, both of you talk about engagement within your own orbit. In the same way some companies are finding out about the importance of joint venturing with other companies, what’s your experience working with other construction industry foundations in addition to ELECTRI? How have you gone about it and how successful or not has it been for the New Horizons Foundation?

TomI think our first was connecting with ELECTRI last year, making that pandemic project happen by getting the input from our respective supporters and association members, and bringing it to fruition. Four short months was pretty amazing. I think it excited everybody on the New Horizon Foundation side.

We would like to engage with MCAA, NIBS and the Lean Construction Institute. I think we have to find the right topic. Discussions are taking place and I hope something may happen. If it does, great. If it doesn’t, we’ll find another project where we can collaborate.

JoshWorking with the Lean Construction Institute could help pull us together and give some perspective for the general contractors and the owners. There’s a lot of mandates from owners about how we must divert more labor off site. Sheet metal is much further ahead than the electrical trade. Right now, a good electrical contractor is diverting 5% of its labor off site. That’s a healthy balance for most of our contractors. Sheet metal does significantly more.

When you’ve got owners out there mandating upwards of 70%, I think it helps us all to look at how we can come together. Look what we did with the pandemic report. Working together made it a more effective type of research that impacted more people. We’ve partnered recently with MCAA on the cybersecurity maturity certificate. The more of this we can do the more it will be extremely beneficial and reach more people.

ELECTRI: Tom, what are you doing in terms of leadership succession within New Horizons? Are you seeing a lot of sons or daughters take over the family firm? Are they getting the kind of exposure to New Horizons that you hope they would get to be involved or is that problematic?

Tom: It’s a problem to be solved early. We have a lot of family type succession and it’s a tribute to the closeness of our Association members. We had a leadership meeting recently and that was the main topic.

For our annual meeting, I’m identifying 10 young contractor leaders to bring to that meeting, generate their interest, and talk about products. We have completed 42 studies and white papers. This is our 25th anniversary and five projects are being developed this year for a total of 47. So, how do we deliver these in a better, more meaningful way for members? I think the young contractors’ insights are going to help us work through that as well as any other product problems or issues.

ELECTRI: Tom, are your senior leaders really interested in bringing younger people into the fold or are they still holding on tight?

Tom: They definitely are interested. Younger folks get things done in a way some of their predecessors don’t imagine. A year ago, I introduced infographics as a necessary component for all of our white papers. The response has been terrific. A field leader can look at a one-page infographic, visualize it. The takeaway is incredible. To get more details, he can link to the 10 or 15-page paper itself.

 ELECTRI:  Josh, what are some “must do” topics for the electrical side over the next couple of years?

Josh: We still produce traditional research of 30+ pages. But, the attention span of our audience has grown shorter. This is something we’re addressing. We’re also going through a retooling of ELECTRI’s value proposition.

One thing we’ve found is that people love the idea of analytics and having the ability to see those blurbs. It’s gotten so easy to create web pages and create hyperlinks. This is how we’re consuming information more. I go to websites, click on the hyperlinks and can jump to different areas and search them. We’re exploring some areas there and working more with videos.

We’ll have to keep in touch, Tom, just to see how we can maybe help each other and test some of those things out. I think that would be interesting.

ELECTRI: Josh, that’s an interesting point about keeping in touch. Do you see keeping in touch to help each other learn tools of the trade, not just simply keeping in touch when you’re doing projects together?

Josh: Absolutely. Our industry is changing so fast. If there’s something I can do to help my members, I’m always open to learning, to staying out front by talking with others in our larger industry who are leading their foundations.

ELECTRI: Tom, are there certain unique topics in the sheet metal world that you want to focus New Horizons’ attention on in the coming year or two? Or just simply the same kind of generalized things that one would address in order to get ahead and to be ready for the next generation?

Tom: People in organizations and leadership are big topics for us, particularly succession. We need to address the aging population, new people coming in, and finding and retaining talent.

Our members fabricate most of what they install. So, the contractor is becoming more manufacturing focused. That’s a big shift. We cannot think like a contractor. We must think like this whole amalgamation of design, fabricating, assembly, and installation.

ELECTRI: Josh, anything you want to specifically ask Tom?

Josh: Tom, I’d love to know what caused that semiconductor shortage in such a short period of time? How do we get there? It’s, it’s amazing that the supply chain was impacted so quickly, with some maybe a little bit of overreaction when the pandemic hit. We need to make sure we are staying ahead of our field and helping our contractors not fall behind.

Tom: I think you’re spot on, Josh. A big topic for us right now is the cost and availability of materials. It’s something I know is keeping a lot of sub- contractors awake at night trying to understand how they need to adapt and evolve and look at contracts and bids locked in 10 months ago. What do you do now? What conversations should you be having with the GCs and the owners? Those are not easy conversations to have when the price you bid 10 months ago could be up by 30% to 40% today.

ELECTRI:  Tom, is there anything you want to make sure our audience hears from you?

Tom: I would urge folks who hear this presentation to contact either Josh or myself and get connected. I mean, contractors have a wealth of information and knowledge. We need their input and perspective on where things are heading so we can stay out in front.

ELECTRI: Josh, what’s the best advice that you have ever received about how to go about leading an industry foundation?

Josh: Asking more questions than speaking. Something I was told long ago in my career is that we have two ears and one mouth. Really practice that and listen to your team, making sure you understand the problems and pains that they’re dealing with. So, take a little bit of time to process and listen.

ELECTRI: Tom, what would you tell our audience?

Tom: When you were phrasing the question, I wrote down Listen. Everybody has this perception of leaders being out front and talking all the time and directing and pointing. When you’re talking, you’re not listening. So, listening is certainly one of my main pieces.

Next, stay connected. We do have our resources to go to for different topics,  trusted people we’ve known through the years and advisors. It’s important to stay connected to the people who have given you good feedback and input.

ELECTRI: Our thanks to both of you for your time and your candor. We’ve learned a lot more about how you need to listen, think, process and also stay connected. We know that our country wouldn’t be what it is without the construction industry. Having both of you who are really knowledgeable in your own worlds talking with us today is a privilege.