Some things Tim Marsh gave me time to learn during my construction career about life and leadership

Over 26 years ago I had the opportunity to work with a project manager that took over on a job in Visalia, CA.  Although I had no idea at the time, he would  go on to shape and direct my career.

As a second year project administrator and straight out of college, I had a very high opinion of my skills.  That all changed the day that Tim Marsh showed up on my project.  He changed everything from filing to cost reports and even how we approached challenges at the job site!!!!  I was livid!!!!  I knew what I was doing!!!!  But his steady demeanor, over time, won me over and I had the opportunity to realize all of the things I didn’t know.

Over the next 24 years he gave me the opportunity to learn many things.   He took the time. Whether he was beside me or in the background, tempering my ego or providing confidence in failure, he always had a saying for every challenge.   He took the time.

As I made the move to lead a new company, these sayings came flooding back into my mind.  Even in retirement, he still…takes the time to talk with me about new challenges. These are a few of the thing Tim gave me the opportunity to learn and that I apply everyday to my work and my life.

  1. You don’t know what you don’t know.
  2. Under pressure, you always go back to what you know.
  3. Nothing is ever as good or as bad as it seems.
  4. It’s not what you go after it’s what you don’t.
  5. Always consider your audience.
  6. Be your own messenger.
  7. Take a breath.
  8. Perception is reality.
  9. Solve the problem.
  10. Water will seek its own level.
  11. Back up to solid ground then come out first.
  12. Meet expectations then go one step more.
  13. Relationships are built over time with trust, not deals.
  14. Call when there are no problems.
  15. Time and Grade.


#1 You don’t know what you don’t know

The tendency of leadership in construction is to be out front with all the answers.  You become comfortable with what you know & strive to show everyone the knowledge you have. But, if you have knowledge, why are you always putting out fires?  Because, no individual has the knowledge to foresee or solve all issues and, things that worked out in the past may not work out now. So, take a breath & realize you don’t (yet) know what you don’t know.  Check your ego and listen to your team, then, apply what you already know to what you have learned & take action. Taking the less informed path will lead to added time and cost in the long run.  Be diligent and always strive to find the perfect balance between learning and action.

#2 Under Pressure, You Always Go Back to What You Know

We all come from diverse backgrounds in construction.  Union, non-union, administrative, trades, high school or college.  Your experience forms a base instinct that drives how you react every day.  It makes you feel comfortable in stressful situations … like you have control.  As you grow as a leader, you try to find balance in your thoughts and actions to relate to people and situations. But, the constant pressure of construction tends to pull you back to your base instinct.  Strive to realize that under pressure you will go back to what makes you comfortable.  As a leader, step back and assess what is really needed and adapt your reaction to the specific circumstance … even if it is uncomfortable.  With consistency over time, you will find balance in your reaction to issues.

#3 Nothing is ever as good or as bad as it seems

When you look back at your career, time eases your perspective of the highest highs and the lowest lows. From getting the promotion to a project spiraling out of control, in the moment, it is the best thing ever or the worst thing imaginable. As a leader, large swings in emotion dramatically affect you and your project. In addition to taxing you mentally, emotions create overconfidence and lack of confidence that can lead to less than stellar decisions.   Celebrate, grieve, and learn.  Always keep it as close to the middle of the road as you can.  Time will ease your perspective and the long-term successes and failures will help you grow as a person.  These experiences will apply to events in your future where the decisions you make will take you to the next level of leadership.

#4 It’s Not What You Go After It’s What You Don’t.

Your choice of what to pursue in construction is a driver of success.  But more importantly what you choose NOT to pursue will have a greater impact on success in the long run. Whether it is an argument, a new job, a project or a new market, it is always better to know when to stay away than when to pursue.  Ego and fear will affect your desire to choose an approach that will have a negative long-term impact.  Leave them at the door… step back and see the current situation, potential results, and evaluate your capabilities and limitations.  Make your decisions based on the facts not the emotion.  There will always be risk, but make it a calculated risk.  Because sometimes the best learning experience comes from the things you didn’t go after.


#5 Always Consider Your Audience

In construction, it is important to have daily communication on status, potential issues, current problems, and upcoming activities.  But, how you communicate, and how your team hears & reacts to what you communicate is critical.  Both the delivery and receipt of information is based on your team’s past experience which drives perception.  Most conflicts and mistrust arise due to a simple misunderstanding of the information and how it was communicated.  Earning a positive response from your team depends on your ability to understand their perception, experience and needs. Then adapt your approach to convey information in a meaningful way to gain a collective understanding. Together you will move the project forward to success.


#6 Be Your Own Messenger

Misunderstandings can derail a project faster than anything else.  Like the whisper game we played in elementary school, perception of what you hear from others and then transmit down the line can be misunderstood.  With Safety, Quality, Time and Cost on the line every day, it is critical you to deliver your message and listen to direct feedback to be sure your message is received and understood by your team.  No matter the issue, it is always best to go directly to the source and be your own messenger.

#7 Take A Breath

Construction is hard, fast paced, and demanding.  As a leader in construction you are constantly bombarded with the need to make a call now through meetings, calls, emails and texts.  It can be overwhelming which can lead to making a snap decision or saying something that you will regret. Take a breath… no really, take a breath.  It is a physical action, a pause in your thoughts, words, or actions that will help you detach emotionally from the situation.  The breath gives you time to look around and evaluate the next path.  Our current society has imposed the need to act immediately on everything we encounter.  But we don’t, take a breath, think it through, prioritize, and then act.

#8 Perception Is Reality

When you approach a situation on a project, your initial view of that situation is seen through the eyes of your past experiences. Whether you failed or succeeded, trusted or got burned, your initial perception of the situation will align with your experience. Had no problems? Perception is there will be no problems. Got Burned? Perception is you will get burned again.  Perception is reality is a relative term and completely depends on our perspective based on past experiences.  To take your leadership to the next level, take a step away from your perspective and look at the facts as they are now.  Changing your perspective will affect your perception which will ultimately guide you to the right action for the current situation.

#9 Solve the Problem

A problem is a “thing” that didn’t turn out as planned.  Since plans are created by people, ego usually creeps into the problem-solving process.  Finding fault & cause are too often the priority, even though each have negligible impact on the solution.  To solve the problem, leave the egos at the door and focus on the best solution for the project.  Communication and collaboration with all stakeholders about the actual conditions surrounding the problem must be the priority.  By using the collective knowledge of the team, the true and most effective solution for the project will become apparent.  With the solution implemented, focus can be shifted to accountability for, and learning from the cause.  Remember, the best problems are the ones we can avoid in the future.


#10 Water Will Seek Its Own Level

As a builder, you are driven to move the project forward. Solve the problem, check it off the list, and move on to the next one.  But, the notion that “It’s better to do something than nothing at all” depends on knowing how much to do and when to do it.  Water will seek to balance itself over time, but it may not necessarily find its own level due to barriers.    As a leader, remove the barriers hindering the path to the best solution.  When you choose to do nothing you are, in fact, doing something.    Whether you can make the call to act or to let a situation play out with strategic adjustments over time, sometimes the best solution comes when you let water seek its own level.



 When problems occur, and you are in the middle of a disagreement it is easy to let ego allow you to defend a bad position to win.    In these situations, take a step back and accept your faults related to the issue.  Being the first to define what you are responsible for and why you are taking responsibility sets a tone for the rest of the conversation when it comes to solving the problem.  It will put others at ease to openly discuss the solution.  Honest people tend to understand and sympathize with taking responsibility and want to help and they will also be upfront about how they contributed to the issue as well. In the long run, defending a bad position will cause more money and reputation to be lost that just owning up to your responsibility early and moving forward with the right solution.


Expectations are the life blood of all construction projects.  Safety, Quality, Time, and Cost all have expectations attached to them.  Long term relationships are built on meeting expectations which, in turn, forms trust.    But what happens when something goes wrong and you don’t meet the expectations?  Whether you are the client or the contractor, one failure can erase years of successes.  That is why it is important to exceed expectations whenever possible.  Going the extra mile solidifies trust when things go extremely wrong…and they will… if you are in this industry for any length of time.  When you meet expectation, step back and think… what can I do to exceed their expectations.  Find something, one, little thing.  It will be remembered and appreciated and that will go a long way for your relationship with that person.

#13 Relationships Are Built Over Time with Trust, Not Deals

Relationships are the common thread that binds people together through the ups and downs of construction.  In your desire to maintain those relationships, you may make short term deals to try to avoid conflict to keep everyone happy.  But, those short-term deals will prove to be a detriment to the relationship and the project in the long run. True trust is not built on deals.  Trust is built over time through successes and failures, telling the kind truth when it isn’t popular, and working through issues together. That is the trust that will allow relationships to grow that will stand the test of time.

#14 Call When There Are No Problems

Construction, at its best, is a series of problems that need to be solved to complete a project. 90% of all phone calls from your team, to a client or a contractor are to discuss a problem.  Think about it… how many times a day do you see the caller ID and think “Oh man … what’s wrong now?”  However, there are successes everyday where things are going as planned or the solution works.  Make the time pick up the phone to just check in.  “Things are going well … do you need anything from me?” Remember, everyone is expecting a problem.  You can change that expectation, build trust, and build true long-lasting relationships by balancing the good and the bad and calling when there are no problems.


Gaining experience in construction takes TIME, lots of time, seeing project after project, there is always something new to learn about building and people. The GRADE is how you well you approach problems and people, as well as construction techniques. In this life of “instant gratification” and “fast promotions”, in most every case, the better part of valor is to slow down, take a breath, and learn. The promotions will come… but… it takes TIME AND GRADE to truly earn it.

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