Creating a Culture of Performance

August 11, 2010

In the ultra-competitive world of commercial construction, where many builders can trace their heritage back 50, 100, even 150 years, Newton, Mass.-based Commodore Builders is just another new kid on the block, and Joe Albanese is fine with that.

The 28-year military veteran and current Regimental Commander with the Reserves Naval Construction Force founded Commodore Builders less than seven years ago as a way to balance his hectic and unpredictable military travel schedule—including a nine-month deployment to the Middle East in 2007—with a career in construction.

Starting a construction company from scratch provided Albanese with the flexibility to travel when required as part of his military duties. It also allowed him to handpick his executive team and instill from the get-go a culture keenly focused on performance and client service.

"Our youth as a firm has allowed us to build from scratch, without baggage," says Albanese, who is retiring from the Navy in September and will resume his role as full-time CEO. "We do not subscribe to any idea of 'It is what it is,' 'That's the way we've always done it,' or 'It's good enough.' Instead, we say, 'It is what we make it.' As with all things young, we're idealistic, and it's working for us."

Working it is. In 2007, the company grew 48%, with revenue reaching $69 million. Last year, Commodore topped $78 million in revenue, nearly 15% growth. Today, the contractor employs 94 professionals and is experiencing steady growth, even in the current tough economic climate.

Albanese attributes his company's success to a highly experienced executive team, with individuals averaging more than 25 years each in the construction management biz, and the performance-focused culture they created. "We've been able to retain the best practices that we've experienced along the way, and shed the less effective practices to create a whole new enterprise with a singular focus on client service," says Albanese.

At the core of Commodore's culture are six quasi-militaristic "Qualities of Excellence," against which all employees are measured and trained (see sidebar). Using the six qualities as a framework, the company's executives created a comprehensive "competency guide" that provides a list of predetermined measurements for virtually every position within the company. For instance, under the quality "confidence to take charge," assistant project managers are measured by their ability to lead the material procurement process, resolve conflicts, and take ownership of all aspects of a project for which they are responsible. Senior project managers are measured by how well they resolve conflicts unassisted, develop relationships, and expand business with key accounts.

"Employees, especially the generation now entering the workforce, want to know where they stand, and what it takes to get to the next level," says Lauren Larson, Commodore's VP of organizational development, who helped develop the competency guide. "We created the guide so there would be no guessing involved."

Larson says executive team members meet quarterly with individual staff members to measure their career progress against the guide metrics. Employees also receive annual 360-degree reviews from their peers for additional feedback.

Every employee has a personalized training plan that includes instruction on specific construction management skills, as well as topics ranging from leadership and delegation to negotiation, communications, and presentation skills. In-house classes are offered bi-weekly via the company's C-School program.

"We pick a subject of importance and drill down," says Albanese. "For instance, if we make a mistake on a project, we'll ask the client to come in and talk about the consequences, from their perspective. How did our mistake affect them? We discuss what went wrong, where we could have been proactive but weren't, and strategies to stay ahead of such problems on future projects."

 
Commodore Builders' 6 Qualities of Excellence
All Commodore employees are measured against the company's six Qualities of Excellence, which, according to Commodore VP Lauren Larson, serve as "a universally understood standard of performance and a method for consistently delivering on our mission: to make the construction process easy for our clients and the outcome excellence in execution."
Confidence to take charge—Take initiative, manage conflict, and be accountable for your results. Capacity to anticipate—Be aware of what's around the corner before you get there. Ability to focus on the details—Assume nothing and ask everything. Seeing the big picture is important, but you can't mess up on the minutia, because construction has zero tolerance for error. Spirit to collaborate—Communicate openly and accept input from everyone involved in the project. Creativity to innovate—Be bold, creative, and challenge tradition to find the fastest route to what clients value most. Knowledge to problem solve—Be persuasive, not just assertive, when solving problems. It's the way you go about solving a client's problem that determines their confidence in you.