Get Out Of The Way

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith

POSTED ON MAY 23, 2013

I have told this story often, but have never blogged about it. As much as any other, it’s the story of our culture.

From 1951 to 1991, EllisDon went from nothing to $1 billion in revenue, with a very impressive resume, but in the ‘90’s we got into serious trouble. It was a combination of things: a terrible economy, severe labour issues, an ill advised investment in the West Indies and worst of all, a corrosive succession battle. I left the company in 1996, but came back as CEO a year later, and it was rough.

For the next two years, we fought everything every day: lawsuits, a damaged reputation, and a serious cash flow crisis, while we tried to turn the company around. And when the fires were finally at least under control, and it was clear we were going to make it, I looked up and something dawned on me: No-one had left. Not precisely true, but close enough: Not one of the key senior EllisDon people that we needed for the company to survive had quit. Why? I knew it wasn’t the leadership - that had been a big part of the problem. And these people were extremely capable, they had ambitions as well as mortgages, and our competitors had been coming after them hard. So why stay on a sinking ship? I honestly couldn’t figure it out. So - with nothing to lose - I asked them, and the person who paid me the respect of giving me the honest answer was Operations VP, Rick Maggiacomo.

Rick said: ‘Yeah, we talked about it, and discussed together what we should do. But we decided that it was a good company and we liked working together, and that we could save it, so we decided to stay.’ Simple as that. I was so blown away, all I could think of to say (laughing) was ‘Did you think you might tell me?’

Then I thought about it a lot. They had confidence in themselves and in each other. They did it because they wanted to and it was worth doing, not because it was the most lucrative option (in the short term anyway) and far from the surest. And they didn’t need anyone’s permission to go out and do their job, they knew what had to be done, and they did it. We were all contributing, to be sure; there was no time to seek approvals, to hold unnecessary meetings or create unneeded rules. The right people were making the right decisions, immediately and on their own. Fourteen years later, that conversation is still reverberating around my brain, and around EllisDon.

So, two things. We’ve worked very hard ever since to push autonomy and accountability (freedom and trust) down absolutely as far as possible throughout the company and to run it very openly – everyone should be getting every bit of knowledge about their project and the company – and with a minimum of bureaucracy. We are crystal clear on our values and try to be equally clear on expectations and accountabilities, but then we strive to just let people do their jobs. Our systems must support this trust, not undermine it. It’s a wide open, entrepreneurial culture, and it’s not for everyone, but it works for us.

More importantly: To a very significant extent, I understand now that effective leadership means getting out of the way. And then – this is key – ensuring that our other leaders are also getting out of the way. Demonstrate confidence in people – top to bottom – and you will have a company of leaders. And if everyone’s a leader, everyone has to get out of the way.

That’s the ideal, I’m not suggesting we’re there yet. The impulse to provide leadership through direct instruction and ego is a powerful one. And obviously there is a balance: People need help and support; financial controls and consistency of execution are acutely important. It’s a fine balance and a journey with no end. A counterintuitive culture must be fought for, every day.

That’s the story; the conversation with Rick Maggiacomo is exactly how it happened. Thanks for reading.