Making the grade

Four years into his career with Sukut Construction Inc., Michael
Crawford was brimming with fresh ideas, ambition and the boundless energy of youth. His initiative was rewarded when he was
entrusted with one of the company’s biggest projects at the tender
age of 24.

“My mentor and the founder of this company, Myron Sukut,
came to me and said ‘You’re doing the job. I’m not going to hold
you back just because you’re only 24 years old,’” Crawford says.
“That was a great lesson to me because I got the opportunity, so I
look at other people the same way.”

Crawford has seen the company through many changes since he
became Sukut’s top executive in 1990. Before a slight setback in
2007, the employee-owned company had grown its revenue 800 percent over an eight-year period, peaking at $270 million in 2006.

Twenty-four years after starting with the company, Crawford is
president and CEO of Sukut, and he shows the same faith in his
employees that the founder showed in him. By giving his employees opportunities to prove themselves through performance and
improve themselves through continuous education, Crawford
built a stronger work force, which has been the catalyst behind the
company’s growth.

Expand to fit your people

Crawford says Sukut’s growth is really a result of the growth of
his people. He remembers how he took advantage of the opportunities he was given, and he is determined that every employee in
his company should have the same chance.

“The reason we continue to grow is I don’t want to lose the really
good people,” he says.

“So if we’re going to make opportunities for people within the
organization, sometimes you have to grow.”

Sukut’s management team is fairly young. Each of its division
presidents are between 35 and 50 years old.

“That can be very intimidating for somebody who’s 25 years old
and wanting to move up in the company,” Crawford says. “To look
at us and say, ‘Ah crap. Nobody’s retiring anytime soon. I guess I
have to go somewhere else if I want to move up.’”

Highly talented and motivated employees need to see opportunities to stay with a company, so the company’s growth goals work
hand in hand with the employees’ personal goals. In some cases,
that may mean exploring new opportunities and opening new divisions to take advantage of new markets.

“We’re not stuck on having just six divisions,” he says. “Four of
these six divisions have started in the past seven years.”

When Sukut’s management team publishes its five-year strategic
plan, it identifies the new positions that would result from possible expansions. Those opportunities are advertised on job boards
within the company.

By showing them the potential for growth, Crawford eliminates
the risk of losing his best people because they have no opportunity for advancement.

“Companies do that [every] so often,” he says. “They suppress
people’s energy and ambition. That’s a problem. We try to take the
lid off things. We say, ‘Hey, you can aspire to be anything you

Sukut has expanded geographically and also into different types
of construction. While you want growth, you have to be cautious.
Crawford says you don’t want to stray too far from your core competency. So some of Sukut’s new divisions deal with landfills, roads, pipelines and other areas that are related to earthmoving —
the company’s core competency.

There’s also another side to growth: While some employees are
excited about the new opportunities, others worry about the

“That’s where my role as a leader is important,” Crawford says.
“To give them confidence that we’re doing the right thing — that
we’re not risking the company to do this new endeavor.”

Crawford says that in order to get your employees on board with
the change, it’s important to show them the benefits, show them
how the change will help the company and show them how it can
help them.

For example, some employees were concerned when Sukut
began doing pipeline work because it was moving away from the
pure earthmoving for which the company was known. Crawford
allayed their fears by showing them several completed projects in
which Sukut started as the earthmover but did some pipeline
work, as well. When these projects ended, Sukut had several
employees with the skills to handle pipeline work.

By demonstrating that a change is a natural extension of Sukut’s
existing capabilities, Crawford proves that he isn’t leading the
company away from its strengths.

He says the best way to help your employees deal with change is
by letting your employees know that you’ve done the research and
considered all the risks — then show them that research.
Crawford sets town-hall meetings regarding an upcoming expansion, and during those meetings, he gives employees the facts:
How many customers are out there, which employees are going to
lead the expansion, what the work force’s size will be — and then
he fields questions.

Your honesty gives employees confidence in your plan and
shows that you respect them.

“People appreciate that,” he says. “You deal to people’s intelligence that way — when you tell them your thought process, they
get to learn how you think, how you make decisions, and they trust
you more.”

Never stop learning

Another key aspect to Sukut’s growth has been its commitment
to continuing education. It’s a commitment that Crawford says has
had a noticeable effect on the bottom line.

“If I’m a project manager and I can accomplish $10 million in
work in a year and I want to grow myself to do larger projects and
more projects, if I can do $15 million next year then I have grown
myself, my own ability, and I have grown the company’s ability
through me,” he says.

Crawford established an internal training program called Sukut
University to help each employee achieve that kind of personal
growth. Each class is taught by an in-house expert who knows the
subject material well.

Classes are designed to help with day-to-day operational areas
like improving time management or learning new software and
also to train future leaders in management skills like understanding finances, negotiating contracts and resolving conflicts
with clients.

One of the side benefits of the classes is building bonds between
experienced senior management and young employees. Crawford
says the face-to-face time helps close the gap between the old-timers and the rookies. If the younger employees are more com-

fortable with management, they’ll be more likely to ask for advice
and less likely to try to hide a mistake.

Of course, it’s not easy to make time for these training programs —
both for the students and the teachers. When you’re caught up in the
day-to-day operations, it can be tough to step away. Crawford knows
this and says he sometimes has to use a heavy hand to make sure
employees take time out of their schedules for a class or two.

“Frankly, it’s like vacations,” he says. “If you don’t sit and put
your vacation on a calendar, you’ll never find the time to take the
damn thing.”

One way he gets people to buy in to his philosophy of continuing
education is to make it convenient. If you make the training program easy to attend, you’ll hear less grumbling about the other
things they could be doing. Crawford usually sets the classes for
Friday mornings and tries to keep their length at one or two hours,
so the employees don’t have to devote an entire day to it.

“For the most part, human nature is such that people want to get
better at what they’re doing,” he says. “That’s natural human
nature. If you make that available to people and you make it easy
for people to do, they’ll embrace it.”

Be goal-oriented

As part of their annual business plan, each of Crawford’s division
presidents develops annual goals for revenue and profits, but they
must set personal learning goals, as well — for themselves and for
everyone in their division.

Crawford then sets up monthly management meetings to allow
the leadership team to check in on each other’s progress toward
their goals.

He schedules monthly one-on-one meetings with his direct reports
to help formulate the learning goals they should be working toward.
Then he encourages them to do the same thing with their direct
reports because they know the strengths and weaknesses of their
employees better than he does.

“It’s not just the young engineers who we expect to learn,” he
says. “We expect everybody to learn and get better every day.”

If you have an opportunity to harness the power of your employees’ ambition, you have to take advantage of it.

“It’s much easier to accomplish a goal if it’s your goal rather than
your boss’s goal,” he says.

Letting employees have input on their goals also improves retention by creating a custom fit for each employee. The system lets
people who are satisfied with their current role improve themselves within that role, while also allowing unlimited flexibility for
the upwardly mobile.

“The people who really push toward success in life want that,”
Crawford says. “And obviously there are people in our company
who are satisfied at the role they have and they’re very good at it.
They don’t want to grow to new levels, and that’s OK. You need a
certain amount of people like that, but the ones who have that fire
in them, you really want to exploit it and make sure you don’t suppress it.”

That’s a mistake Crawford says he will never make. Tapping into his
employees’ talent and creating opportunities for them to reach their
full potential has been a key part of Sukut’s growth. In his one-on-one
meetings, he lets employees know that their ceiling is as low or as high
as they want it to be.

When considering whether an employee is ready to be promoted,
Crawford looks at past successes, gets feedback from managers and
evaluates the employee’s progress toward goals. He keeps records of
each class he or she has taken at Sukut University (or elsewhere) to
determine if an employee has been willing to increase his or her own

“When a person becomes a division president for us, by no
means do they know how to do everything,” he says. “We try not to wait until a person is perfect for the job and totally overqualified
before we give them that job. As long as the person is willing to
learn and willing to hustle and has energy, we can help them learn
to be more well-rounded. Do they make some mistakes? Yeah.
That’s part of learning. Hopefully, we can learn through each
other’s mistakes instead of having to make them all ourselves.”

HOW TO REACH: Sukut Construction Inc., (714) 540-5351 or