Brick by brick Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2009

When Chuck Greco passionately talks about building a foundation, it has nothing to do with concrete or dirt. Sure, as president and CEO of Linbeck Group LLC, he is passionate about the buildings his company erects. But this foundation has to do with the integrity and the values he wants his employees and culture to have.

“We are very upfront with the values that we want to have or the principles that we want to have,” he says. “We have innovation, improvement, trust. We try to work with those three and say that’s really how we assure our business success.”

However, getting that message across to his more than 300 employees can be a challenge for Greco. With employees spread all over the country, he can’t see everyone face to face to really drive home the company’s values.

Because they don’t have everyone in one place, it’s even more important for the company, which posted more than $500 million in 2008 revenue, to have a strong culture.

“We have to have a strong culture because those people are not in the building,” he says.

“They are off in an autonomous entity creating this project, and therefore, you don’t have that micro-control over them.”

Even if Greco did have everyone under one roof, utilizing a strong culture is still a main driver to success with your employees and your customers, as long as it translates into performance.

“You have to do something with it,” says Greco. “You have to apply it. If it applies to performance and if it applies to a competitive advantage for the people that use us, that’s what grows our business.”

Promote the value of service

In order to develop a strong service-oriented culture, you have to be honest with yourself and know what your strengths and weaknesses are as a company, and that requires speaking directly with your customers.

Asking customers if they are satisfied with your company’s performance is a great indicator of whether your culture is strong and if your message is getting across to employees.

“That will tell you whether you’re going to make money or not,” he says.

Linbeck gives customers two surveys. One rates the company on how satisfied a client is on the project and if their requests were exceeded. The other survey is an overall survey that covers whether a client is happy in general with the organization.

At the beginning of a relationship with a client, Linbeck has a session with the client to find out what that company wants out of the project. The client could come up with three goals or 10 goals, but the questions for a project-specific survey will be centered around if those goals were met and if the client felt the project was a success.

“It might be how we interact with their volunteers. If it’s on campus, how you interact with the sororities and fraternities,” he says. “You’d be surprised with some of the answers. You think they only care about budget or schedule or quality. It goes beyond that. Those are just expectations. They wouldn’t even call us unless they knew we could do that. They’re looking for something beyond that, if you ask them the right way. We will build a series of these things and then we will measure it against it. That’s what the survey will be: How are we satisfying your particular goals for the project?”

If Greco isn’t driving home that he wants a culture of integrity and trust, there’s a good chance those surveys come back negative.

“We’ve probably never made money if a client is not satisfied,” he says

While some companies will have no problem filling out the surveys, you may have to track some down in order to get the feedback you need.

“You either have to take them to lunch and hand them the pencil,” he says. “They get it all kinds of ways. They get it on the Internet, they get it hard copy, you go meet with them and hand it to them. Every client has a certain way to respond, and you have to kind of find that.”

You also need to constantly stress to employees that they are providing a service to the client.

“You just have to constantly put things in that perspective,” he says. “That, without your client, we don’t really have a professional service to give. Then they start to think more like, ‘Maybe I should ask the client more questions. Maybe I should understand their business because I might see something they don’t see.’”

That type of attitude will lead to happier customers.

“Because people who are smart buyers who want to be ahead of their competition know they have to get a high-performance team,” he says. “They know that will only come through trust. They have to be able to trust the people on the team that they are working for their best interest.”

Educate new employees

You have to communicate what makes up your culture to new employees if you hope to maintain its strengths.

At Linbeck, new employees have about a four-hour “Cultural Distinction” group meeting with Greco and Chairman Leo Linbeck III. The duo lays out the company’s values and the importance of integrity and a collaborative work environment.

To avoid giving the perception that the meeting is an orientation that’s going to be a snooze-fest centered on a timeline of the company’s achievements, be careful how you refer to it.

“Don’t call it orientation,” he says. “Just tell them you want to talk about the organization.”

Greco and Linbeck give an actual story behind how the company evolved, instead of just listing off important moments in the organization’s history.

“It tells everybody that you are not coming to a meeting just for us to lecture to you,” he says. “But, basically, we just gave you insight into the whole business and, from henceforth, everything you are going to be exposed to that is off of that springboard or platform. If you don’t buy in to creating value in a collaborative way, then you picked the wrong company or we picked the wrong individual.”

Greco tries to keep the meeting to four hours, but sometimes it can go longer.

“It depends upon how interactive they get,” he says. “Here’s a time when you have the chairman and the CEO, dedicating time for you to ask whatever you want to know. Some of them follow up later with e-mails and some people want to test you right there — test the convictions right there and that’s interesting and that’s always good because it lets you amplify where the boundaries are. It’s a good meeting to get that out of the way. Sometimes there can be as few as five people in the room. There’s no more than 10 though. I try to keep it a very small group.”

As important as it is to delegate tasks in business, the initial communicating of what your culture is should come directly from you.

“You can’t delegate this to HR. You can’t delegate this to a VP even. I don’t think it works. I think it has to be the CEO,” he says. “They know that they are at the end of the line. In other words, they are getting it straight from the top. We challenge them that if they ever hear it differently than what we’ve expressed it, and they’re confused, they are to come back to us to straighten it out.”

Greco uses the meetings to give a full plate of information regarding the company’s way of doing things, because he wants new employees to understand everything faster than employees did in the earlier years of the organization.

“I want to do it this way because what I observed before was that it would take someone about 10 years to get all the code and to understand why we do what we do, and we don’t have that time anymore,” he says. “Things move too quickly. My challenge as a CEO is to have people understand the fundamental principle by which we are making this decision or what we’re doing. They have to learn quicker. Nobody has that apprenticeship time anymore. They need to be productive quicker, and they can be.”

While Greco finds the meeting is a great way to initiate new employees into the culture, he realizes that every employee is not going to learn everything he or she needs to know from this meeting.

“That’s not the point,” he says. “The point is there is a tremendous amount of information in mentors out there that you will have to tap into in order to be able to operate within the organization.”

Looking back, that’s why Greco started these cultural distinction meetings. He thought about what it was like being a middle manager after 10 years with the company and the knowledge that could have made him a better manager.

“Executive strategy — we think it’s beautiful, everything is thought out, it just has to be executed,” he says. “Then, all of a sudden, you find out the people who are implementing it on the very essential ground level haven’t heard it or haven’t heard your message in a way that they understand it. Then you find out where it got filtered and ... that’s at midmanagement. You find that your young project managers, they are not as confident about their leadership as you are. Therefore, they tend to control information, instead of being disseminators of it.”

That’s why you need to explain to new employees the nuances and subtleties of your organization. So employees know what they are doing and when to seek help when they can’t grasp something.

Because of the cultural distinction meetings, it doesn’t take them 10 years to know what to ask their immediate supervisor.

“They come out within two weeks and they are able to say, ‘Hey, I need to know more about this. I want to know more about that.’ That keeps my managers on their toes and keeps them locked in and just speeds it up,” he says.

Giving new employees information about the company’s culture upfront will give future leaders of the company better tools to be successful.

“What we’re trying to do is perpetuate the success,” he says. “So, I’m not trying to create a false culture that doesn’t exist. I want to build upon the one we have. So, you just express what you do, why we do it and hopefully as generations come through, they will take that as a basis and they’ll add to it and make it better or look at something that causes us to be weak in a certain area and then find a way to make it stronger.”

How to reach: Linbeck Group LLC, (713) 621-2350 or www.linbeck.com