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Lisa Murray is the director of learning and development at Wohlsen Construction, a newly-created position. 

Lisa Murray says she learned everything she needed for a 20-plus-year career as a leadership coach, trainer and business consultant way back when she was in elementary school.

After earning a degree in elementary special education from Cabrini College in Philadelphia, Murray spent four years as a special education teacher in the Columbia Borough School District.

The 50-year-old East Lampeter Township resident says the birth of her son prompted her to leave the classroom and begin a new venture offering seminars for other teachers based on her experience of what it took to manage young students.

But she soon found that her emphasis on improving emotional intelligence and developing effective communication styles was an appealing — and needed — message in the corporate world.

“The behavior we saw in the playground is now in the boardroom. So I’m the one who comes in to intervene before it becomes a problem,” she says. “It’s the same thing, but we’re just now in suits and ties.”

Over the years, Murray has continued to refine her focus on emotional intelligence and communication styles, becoming a sought-after consultant to a variety of companies.

Earlier this year when she saw a job listing from Wohlsen Construction for a director of learning and development, she thought there might be an opportunity for a consulting gig.

But instead of a new client she got something else: a new employer.

Since June, Murray has been the director of learning and development for the Lancaster-based construction company. In the newly created role, Murray is designing training programs for leaders and teams that can be rolled out across Wohlsen’s nine offices.

“We want to create a Wohlsen leadership pipeline, taking individuals within the company who have been identified as potential leaders and enhance their skills and improve performance, so they are ready when the positions become available,” she says.

In-house trainer

Both the headquarters and operations center for Wohlsen Construction are in Lancaster city, where the company has been based since its founding by Herman Wohlsen in 1890.

The company, the largest construction firm based in Lancaster County, has more than 400 employees and annual revenues exceeding $414 million. It serves clients in eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Murray says she is focusing new training programs at Wohlsen on leadership development and “soft skills” such as communication techniques, including body language. She’ll also be an internal coach, working one-on-one or with small teams to help improve performance and develop new skills.

“They were really making a commitment for the learning and development of their team members, and they wanted to develop them to the highest level,” she says.

While she doesn’t have experience in the construction industry, she’s come to appreciate that her longtime emphasis on emotional intelligence and communication are increasingly valued by leaders in a variety of industries.

“One of the most common areas of emotional intelligence that is lacking in corporate America is the ability to manage your emotions under stress,” she said. “Emotional intelligence is really the soft skills, the people side of business which majorly impacts the bottom line.”

Unspoken communication

Understanding body language remains a key area of Murray’s training and one she thinks can be vital for supervisors and managers.

For example, being aware of what someone else’s body language is saying may indicate that it’s not the right time for a heavy conversation.

“If someone has their eyes crossed, and is making little eye contact, then don’t go into detail,” she says. “Some people don’t read that situation properly, and they will go on and on when the conversation should have been ended much sooner.”

While Murray says that even though crossed arms could just mean someone is cold — and not uninterested — it can be such a mixed message that she avoids it, saying that, for herself, she’d rather be cold.

“What I tell people is you’re sending an unconscious message whether you know it or not, or you doing it on purpose or not,” she says.

While Murray is confident her training will work at a construction company, she says she might have to adapt it somewhat.

For example, instead of using the term “emotional intelligence” when explaining her concept, she might focus on specific examples, such as the impact on a day’s work when a crew member loses his or her temper.

“The technical skills can be taught,” she says. “The emotional intelligence is something you can really develop over time when there’s the awareness and the willingness to make those changes.”