Making the grade Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2008

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 want.’”

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 changes.

“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 abilities.

“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 www.sukutconstruction.com