I Want To Run A Large Construction Company. What Should I Study?

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


Let me start by saying that I respect immensely the work that is being done every day by EllisDon’s great engineers, whose passion it is to build the most complex and challenging projects we can find. As I do the Gold Seal graduates, accountants and lawyers and everyone else who is working very hard to build a great company here. But OK, let’s just say you are a young person setting your academic priorities based solely on your intense desire to lead a big company one day. Is there anything else?

One: I was at a meeting with a group of CEO’s six months ago, and some of them got up and asked questions. The first one, Blackberry’s CEO, started by saying “My name is John Chen, and I sell smartphones.” He asked his question, and now the trend was set: “My name is so and so, and I sell pharmaceuticals….”, “My name is such and such and I sell auto parts….”, and so on. Time ran out before I got my chance, but I had my introduction ready: “My name is Geoff Smith, and I sure wish I’d told my kids to go into sales.” Which is my point. John Chen has to sell as many phones as he can; it’s how he’s measured. He needs to sell his company to the investment community, and he needs to sell his vision to the employees. Yet, in most professional conversations we tend to denigrate ‘selling’. We don’t value it, we don’t teach it, we don’t put it on our resumes (because it won’t get us hired). Recently, we had a young ‘high potential’ EllisDon employee put profound limits on his advancement by saying “I won’t do anything that involves sales”. And yet, Canada’s top CEO’s define themselves and their primary role as ‘selling’. I am trying to reorganize myself so I can spend much more time doing what brings the most value to EllisDon: Bringing in work. Selling. It’s what the best CEO’s do, and clearly I need to get better at it. But how many top salespeople are we developing? After all, I need to start looking for my successor…..

Two: We are building some new ‘Five Star’ Timeshare Villas at our St. Lucia resort. A few months ago, I was talking to our construction leader, Drew Neill, about the serious productivity challenges he was having – it’s not easy. I suggested the usual stuff: Completion bonuses, special recognition, etc. Drew replied that the best success he’d had so far was to set up achievable goals, but with a fairly nominal reward. If the team met its weekly goal, they would knock off Friday at three and he would serve them all cold beer. Of course, it wasn’t the beer that motivated them, it was goal and the camaraderie with people you like. Just human psychology stuff. What motivates and inspires people? What gives them meaning and happiness (and not just ‘them’ but each of us too)? If you want to be a strong leader, aren’t those your key questions?

Canada’s successful soccer team at the Women’s World Cup this past summer was coached by a fellow named John Herdmann. Here’s what he had to say: “A leader is not someone who instructs, ‘Do this, do that’. A leader paints a picture of how a mountain can be scaled. The way to spark action is to unleash the brain. To override the logical frontal cortex and tap into the limbic system, where emotions reside. The logic system was put there to keep us safe. Do abnormal people operate in the realms of safety? (Abnormal being a good thing, at least where outsized success is concerned.) “No! They put themselves at risk!” That’s an Honours Psychology grad talking, not someone who has mastered the zone defense.

Of course, it takes a vast array of specialized and expert talents for a large company to be successful, and people should be consumed by what they love doing. But it’s also true that our great engineers who have been promoted into positions of leadership now spend their days challenging people, inspiring people, and - when those efforts fail – leading people. They haven’t done any actual engineering for years. So, when it comes to real, senior leadership, shouldn’t we be hiring and training far more psychology grads and sales experts than we are? (I doubt we are hiring any.) Isn’t that where company leaders, if they want to be great at their job, must excel? Shouldn’t our future leaders be spending their time studying Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Human Needs’ all morning and effective communication skills and brand building techniques all afternoon?

Just wondering. Have a great day.