Control Freaks: Can Steve Jobs Possibly Be Wrong?

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


What is the right balance between central control versus individual autonomy in a company? We have, at EllisDon, a very autonomous culture. While striving to maintain a strong culture and financial controls, we try hard to give everyone here as much freedom as we can, in the offices, on the job sites, from top to bottom. We are not perfect at this I know, but we try hard and we certainly trumpet it as a key differentiator at EllisDon, both to our clients and potential employees. We believe it is the foundation of our success.

Our larger, international competitors lean toward a more centralized, systems oriented approach. We know this because we joint venture with them and see how decisions are made. We greatly prefer the EllisDon model of course, but are we just drinking our own bathwater here? We are proud of our accomplishments, but it’s pretty hard to deny the success and profitability of someone five times your size.

And I have to acknowledge that I can be a bit of a hypocrite on this point. I have tried, for example, to be more inclusive on strategic development, but I can’t do it. The discussion always gets too conventional for me, too bogged down in (sometimes very logical) reasons not to do new things. I’m happy to have help, but I’m not able to let it go. Which is not a great thing, I acknowledge.

And then of course, there’s the legendary Steven Jobs, who by all accounts is a consummate control freak and a very difficult personality to work with. But he seems to have changed the world and made billions, so that seems to have worked pretty well for him, the stakeholders at Apple and most of us.

Finally of course, you can debate the definition of a ‘great company’, which we all want to build. Is it defined by size? By return on investment? By the quality of the lives and careers of the people who spend their careers there? By some algorithmic combination of the three (for the measurement lovers)?

Here’s one thing I AM convinced of: There are way too many construction companies in the world right now, and five years from now there will be far fewer. Probably the same can be said for other sectors of our industry; likely for many other industries. Whoever gets this right has a huge head start, I’d say.

"I'm most proud of helping to create a company that by virtue of its values, practices and success has had a tremendous impact on the way companies are managed around the world ... that I'm leaving behind an organization that can live on a role model long after I'm gone"

- William Hewlett, Chair, Hewlett Packard, 1990