For building out infrastructure around the globe—always looking out for lessons learned along the way
As a civil engineer officer in the U.S. Air Force, Maj. Samuel Michael Clark has managed his portfolio of infrastructure and construction projects with a simple mantra: “Successful project management should never resemble a game of Whac-a-Mole.”
So while it can be easy to “get lost in the details rather than leading,” he says, “have the good sense to look at your situation from more perspectives than your immediate view.”
That philosophy has guided Clark well throughout a decade-long career leading an expansive roster of large-scale projects in North America, Europe and Africa. The lineup has included U.S. Department of Defense facilities, airfield pavements, road construction and maintenance, and utilities infrastructure build-outs for everything from water to electricity to liquid natural gas. And then there are the 30-plus active projects in the Middle East alone—and his work spearheading Air Force construction projects in West Africa across an area spanning 11 million square miles (28 million square kilometers).
He has done it all with a laser focus on extensive engagement with local entities and countless instances of learn-on-the-fly problem-solving—all the while pushing the limits for career development. Months prior to his deployment, he had finished up back-to-back master’s degree programs in business administration and engineering and relocated his family of four (including a newborn!) across the globe. And did we mention Clark is now out to earn a Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification?
Pursuing the PMP is helping Clark learn the value of agile—and has highlighted why the construction industry needs to explore new ways of working. “Agile project development is trending right now, but I foresee a greater emphasis on requirement fluidity coming to the forefront and gaining more traction in disciplines beyond the tech sector,” he says.
For project leaders, that means being able to instill a change-ready mindset across teams, Clark says.
“The way I see it fitting best into the construction context is adapting to last-minute project scoping changes to bring in any additional resources we may need,” he explains. “Essentially, design to the base requirement, but plan to be able to expand it with limited notice—we need to be able to double what we’re designing for.”
Another takeaway: Sometimes the biggest lessons learned come from figuring out how to salvage a project that is seemingly headed for trouble. Case in point: When he took over managing the construction of a temporary dining facility in Kuwait in 2018—a seemingly straightforward build—he quickly realized he’d inherited a mess of problems. The design had left out critical requirements such as site drainage and grading, lightning protection and grounding, restrooms and handwashing stations, rations storage and connection to shore power, Clark says. So he and his team needed to rework nearly every aspect of what was supposed to be a 180-day project—from vendor contracts and procurement to material handling equipment and site access.
“Now, four years later, this project remains my number one learning opportunity to date,” he says. “We do not learn the most from our successes, but rather from our failings.”
Q&A: Samuel Michael Clark on avoiding burnout and where he goes for leadership tips
What’s the biggest challenge facing young project leaders right now?
Early on, young project leaders seek to prove themselves and deliver. However, many of them proceed at an unsustainable rate. As a result, they trip over details that they had overlooked, outpace their contractors/stakeholders (which strains the working relationship) or burn themselves out.
What book or podcast are you obsessed with recommending right now?
Hands down, the Jocko Podcast by Jocko Willink. I have also listened to his audiobook, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, a couple of times and routinely devour his underground mini-lectures and guest speakers’ stories. The content he and his team have produced is beyond good—it’s meticulously incredible.