Leadership in Practice: A conversation with Greg Kozicz, Ph.D., President, Alberici
Q: Can you give me a 2 minute synopsis on how you got where you are now?
A: After completing a Ph.D. in international relations and working in the Canadian Foreign Service, I was approached to be chief of staff for the Federal Minister of Science. When that assignment was winding down, I made the shift to the private sector with a large development company that was getting into the privatization of public infrastructure. The privatization projects always involved complex relationships and an understanding of how government worked, so that brought me into the infrastructure development and construction world. After a short period of time with that company, I was offered a role in a publicly traded construction company. That was the official transition from government, to privatization of public infrastructure, to construction. I was with this construction company in Canada for just about 8 years. I joined Alberici in 2001 as President of the Canadian division. In 2004, I became president of Alberici US.
Q: Thinking back over those years, can you think of ways that your leadership style has changed? What have you learned?
A: In the foreign service, I was a pretty low-ranking diplomat, but was fortunate though to be involved in arms control negotiations for a couple of years. In that role, I got to observe and learn from a number of great leaders. These great leaders always had three things in common. One, they were very good listeners. They always listened for intent—for what was not being said. Two, they were always prepared with detail and data for any meeting or negotiation session. And, three, they were great communicators, able to tailor the spoken word for any audience without compromising the message.
I have tried to emulate those three traits in my leadership style. Early on in my career, my impatience and competitiveness sometimes caused me to stop listening after hearing only one or two opinions on an issue. Today, I know that it is worth taking the extra time to listen to the opinions of everybody that will be affected by a decision. It takes a little longer but you make better informed decisions and build support for the decisions once they are made.
Q: Are there any critical experiences you can point to that informed or shaped your approach?
A: In 1998, I was assigned to lead a large construction division that had been struggling through most of the 90s. Cash flow was bad, customer satisfaction was bad, and profits were nonexistent. Our board decided not to shut it down (against my advice!) instead, they assigned me to turn it around. I worked with a team over a six week period to develop a recovery plan. The first step in the plan—survival. In the short term, survival meant a drastic reduction in costs. I remember that we gathered the employees to announce that we had laid off half of the company, and they were the remaining members of the company that we were going to go forward with. In the first 2 minutes of that presentation, I noticed nothing but blank stares in front of me. I don’t know what I expected, but I at least thought I would get that knowing look—that look that says “Yes, this is tough medicine, but we understand it was necessary.” But they didn’t understand and the looks the employees gave me they had no clue, no context to understand why we had taken such a dramatic action. And so, right then and there, I stopped the presentation and asked the question, “Does anybody know how much money we have lost in the last 10 years, how bad our cash position is or what our clients think of us?” They didn’t know. I realized that the most important members of the team going forward had no clue. There had been a real lack of communication of critical information over the years that employees required to do their jobs and to understand how they made a difference. So what I said was, “I will commit to you that every month the senior management of this company will brief you on all the critical information: client satisfaction, safety, profit, and cash. For the next three years, we have never missed a monthly or quarterly “briefing.” I have been president of Alberici Canada, Alberici US, and now CEO of the Corporation and have never missed a quarterly briefing since 1998. These are great two-way sessions that always include significant time for Q&A.
Q: What role does mentoring play in your approach to leadership?
A: First, I start by realizing that my experience has gaps and this limits my range as a mentor. So, I encourage my direct reports to attend at least one leadership development program each year. In addition to this outside leadership development, my mentoring tends to focus on two areas. One area is operations and specifically what authority and decisions to delegate and which ones not to. The second area deals with succession and deal with those members of my leadership team who are anxious to have additional leadership within the team, at the company, and ultimately are interested in my job. For these executives, I ask permission during our performance reviews to “subject” them to a higher level of oversight that is really intended to make them succession ready. This higher level is all about advancing the leadership culture at Alberici. When I am working with an executive who wants to get to the next level, I am like that coach in high school or college who you respected (I hope!), but got on you about all the little things. It is critical to work hard with these future leaders on little things because they are the ones who will preserve and advance the culture of the company.
Q: How would you describe that leadership culture that you are trying to establish or maintain?
A: I expect the senior executives to be great listeners and observers. I want them to use these skills to develop “headlights” to see around corners at what is happening in the marketplace. I expect them to be hands on detailed people. I expect them to be great written and verbal communicators so that they are able to communicate the way we do business. And, the communication is critical because you always want to tie it back to where we are going as a company. When you have people spread out across the United States, Canada, and Mexico and on some day when you don’t have a formal leader present, you want your people to do the right thing by instinct because the values are so ingrained through the communications process. When those right things are happening across the company without the direction of formal leaders that tells you your culture is not only being preserved but it is prepared to be advanced.
Q: So what sort of impact then do you think that culture has on the business?
A: With a culture of listening and observation, you are able to see large patterns and future opportunities emerging in the marketplace, you are able to put the company and the team in front of opportunities. The disciplined, roll-up-your-sleeve culture makes sure that you harvest those opportunities in a very consistent and disciplined way.
Q: Do you have anything else you want to add about leadership at Alberici or just your experience with it?
A: I think Alberici learns a lot from its mistakes. I believe our current leadership team understands that when we have failure, it can always be traced back to two things—a process and/or people flaw. So today’s leadership team at Alberici is always working to improve all of our processes and we are also very disciplined about how we recruit, develop, reward, and retain our people.