Culture in Construction

Cultivating Culture in Construction—and Why it Matters

By Lauren Nunnally, Chief Talent Officer

Laying the foundation for buildings goes much deeper than the placing of concrete. Companies that invest in building a strong culture that fosters collaboration, professional development, passion, and pride will see higher rates of employee engagement and retention, superior levels of craftsmanship, and a stronger commitment to the team and the mission.

Identifying and partnering with general contractors (GCs) that are committed to building a strong company culture aligned with your goals and values will ensure your project directly reaps the benefits of that culture and significantly increases the probability of exceeding your goals.

I believe that as a builder, we are only as good as our people. Our culture focuses on aligning our priorities and how we conduct business. This enables us to provide a consistently high level of service and building relationships both locally and nationally, which results in repeat business and long-term partnerships. I am proud of the work that our local team has done to help establish and embrace our culture and priorities. Our 100% employee-owned model allows us to enjoy high retention rates and have fun building together.” – Jared Hoeflich, Southeast Division Manager

Curating a Strong Culture in Construction

Culture reflects the collective values and beliefs that guide an organization’s attitudes and behaviors. For this reason, culture is anchored in mindset. Mindset is everything. It is the intangible competitive advantage that drives our success at Swinerton. When culture is effectively nurtured, it can unleash vast amounts of energy towards a shared mission. Therefore, cultural alignment with an organization’s mission is critical. But how does an organization go about achieving this alignment?

It starts first with defining the core mission. At Swinerton, our mission is to be the preferred builder and trusted partner in every market we serve. Once the mission is clear, an organization must identify those core values and mindsets that will be essential to sustaining the mission. To be the preferred builder and trusted partner of our clients, Swinerton identified its core values to be:

INTEGRITY: We say what we mean, and we do what we say. We fulfill our commitments, we are candid with our partners and teammates, and we hold ourselves accountable.

LEADERSHIP: We focus on solutions-driven teamwork. We listen, are forward-thinking, and share information openly.

PASSION: As employee-owners, we are relentlessly driven and enthusiastic in our pursuit of perfection and knowledge. We take pride in the quality of our work and in contributing to the success of those around us.

EXCELLENCE: We strive for the highest level of execution in all aspects of our work. We seek to identify root causes, generate new ideas, and minimize complexity.

In addition to these core values, we developed our Career Blueprint to articulate the specific attributes and mindsets that define our culture at Swinerton. While many of these attributes and mindsets will be developed in our employees over the course of their careers, there are several that we look to be strongly demonstrated by all employees and new hires, regardless of experience or organizational level. These fundamental cultural attributes are a positive “can do” attitude, commitment to responsibilities and goals, strength of character, tenacity, respect, ownership, team player mentality, seeking others’ perspectives, curiosity, and a motivation to constantly expand skills through learning.

It is essential that an organization be able to identify and communicate the mindsets that drive their culture and be specific about how these mindsets show up in their employees’ everyday actions and behaviors. Once an organization’s culture is broadly shared and pervasive at all levels, strong alignment between their culture and mission will be the single most impactful driver of enduring positive outcomes for their clients, their projects, their company, and their employees.

A Strong Culture is a Socially Responsible Culture

The culture of a GC is honed not only through its leadership and operations, but also through its commitment to having a positive impact on the industry and the communities in which it operates. A commitment to economic and workforce development, philanthropy, safety, health and wellness, diversity, and sustainability sets the tone for a strong, productive workforce that attracts, develops, and retains the best talent and produces the highest quality work. Corporate social responsibility generally focuses on three primary areas: People, Communities, and the Environment.

PEOPLE: Long-term success depends on having productive workers who are knowledgeable, healthy, and motivated. This begins with strong recruiting practices. Supporting young professionals through internships, CoOps, and apprenticeship training ensures the employment pipeline is continuously filled with strong, motivated talent. Partnerships with organizations such as SkillsUSA, ASCE, and the CEA, as well as colleges and universities throughout the country, underpins these recruiting efforts. Once great talent is on board, it is critical to have strong training, development, and coaching programs in place to ensure that employees reach their full potential and are provided with opportunities to grow in their careers. After recruiting and developing great talent, motivating and retaining these employees for the long-term is essential. This requires a best-in-class employee experience which can only be achieved through a committed investment in diversity, equity and inclusion practices, competitive benefits, and a safe and healthy workplace.

COMMUNITIES: Operating as a responsible partner to small, minority, women-owned, disabled, and veteran-owned business enterprises ensures a cultural richness and diversity of perspectives that will benefit any GC and ultimately its clients. Partnering with organizations such as the National Association of Minority Contractors (NAMC) connects minority subcontractors with GCs ensuring their inclusion in the solicitation of proposals for project opportunities. Focusing on hiring local talent renders a sense of pride and accomplishment in helping build the communities in which a business operates. Given their intimate understanding of community values and needs, local talent takes strong ownership in the quality and impact of their work further contributing to the likelihood of extremely successful projects. Lastly, supporting local community efforts and non-profits that help our cities thrive is essential. This support can be shown through direct donations of both the company and its employees, but is often even more impactful when demonstrated through employees volunteering their time.

ENVIRONMENT: Socially responsible GCs should make every effort to reduce the environmental impact of their projects and business operations. Organizations must first understand and track their impacts and then make the commitment to implementing and continuously improving sustainable business practices like waste reduction and water conservation efforts. Supporting training and certifications for employees on sustainable and environmentally friendly building practices shows further commitment to being a socially responsible organization and allows a GC to make valuable contributions to the design process from a sustainability standpoint.

Embracing corporate social responsibility is the cornerstone of a GC’s commitment to society and it is a core strategy for Swinerton. Our social responsibility efforts at Swinerton create greater connections among our employees and business partners, engage our teams in a greater purpose, and further enhance the social responsibility priorities of our clients. Through our formal employee development programs for both craft and non-craft professionals, vast community partnerships and volunteering efforts, The Swinerton Foundation, prioritization of diversity and inclusion initiatives, engagement with numerous environmental initiatives like the USGBC’s “Building Health” initiative, and our continued development of new business units that address environmental challenges (e.g. Swinerton Renewable Energy and Timberlab), we continue to make strides towards our goal of being viewed as a leader in the CSR space.

Culture Shapes Project and Business Outcomes

General contractors that operate in an environment defined by trust and transparent and frequent communication, organically establish a solid foundation for strong partnership throughout the construction process. This atmosphere of leadership and collaboration ensures that issues and obstacles are avoided or swiftly addressed and projects are completed on time and within budget. When you consider two of the primary dimensions of culture— how people interact and how people respond to change—it is easy to see why culture is such a fundamental driver of success in the construction industry.

PEOPLE INTERACTION: Cultures with a high emphasis on interdependence will be highly collaborative and view success through the lens of the team. No construction project can be successful by the performance of any one individual or even one stakeholder group. A project is only successful when all individuals and project partners view their success as inextricably linked and perform as “One Team,” a common term used here at Swinerton. A foundation of trust combined with the ability to engage in and facilitate constructive dialogue among all project stakeholders will drive positive project outcomes.

RESPONSE TO CHANGE: Flexible and adaptable cultures tend to prioritize transparency and innovation and embody the “can do” mindset that a good solution can be found to any challenge. Construction projects and the macroenvironments on which they depend are rife with unpredictability. A great contractor will thrive in this environment and is able to overcome any challenges or changes that come their way. Given Swinerton’s 130+ year track record of business innovation and adaptation to the world around us, our teams continue to demonstrate that they are prepared to handle any situation or circumstance. This was most recently evidenced by the organization’s quick and thorough response to the global pandemic and ability to maintain safe and effective building operations throughout.

How a GC team communicates and interacts within their team as well as with project partners and how they handle a constant stream of obstacles and changes will directly impact how successful a project will be. All of this is driven by the organizational culture of which they are a part. An organization with a strong and passionate culture will deliver teams that learn quickly, communicate openly, embrace innovation, stand by their commitments, collaborate broadly leveraging internal and external expertise, and continuously improve in order to deliver the highest levels of excellence for their clients.

Evaluating a Company’s Culture

Whether you are selecting a GC partner or your next career move, taking the time to evaluate a company’s culture will pay dividends in your future. Try to understand what their culture is, how it shows up in their day-to-day work, and how it aligns with the culture and mission of your organization. Talk to their employees, leadership, business partners, and others throughout the community. Below are some things to consider:

  • What is the company’s work environment and employee experience like? How are employees treated? How are employees recognized and rewarded? Substantial research has shown that happy employees correlates highly with client satisfaction.
  • Why or how are their employees invested in successful project or business outcomes? Employee ownership opportunities can be a significant driver of employee engagement and effort.
  • What are the organization’s hiring practices? Look for organizations who demonstrate a strong commitment to talent acquisition, particularly at the entry level.
  • What employee development programs does the organization have in place? Are development opportunities provided to all employees?
  • Are the organization’s development programs focused on business skills and leadership attributes in addition to technical competencies? Strong technical competencies are fundamental, but “how” organizations work with their teammates and partners and the mindsets they cultivate elevates great companies over good ones.
  • How does the GC support the growth and development of craft employees? Effective employee development programs for craft professionals will have significant positive impacts on project quality, safety, productivity, schedule, and financial outcomes.
  • What is the GC’s retention rate? Employee retention is critical for seamless project continuity.
  • What diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives does the organization have in place? Do they have policies and practices that support employee success and inclusion for all?
  • What percentage of the GC’s work is subcontracted out versus self-performed? How will the company leverage their self-perform capabilities and the contribution of their craft workforce to benefit the project?
  • What is the company’s long-term investment in the local community? Has the GC been actively engaged in local community-building initiatives? How does it work with and/or support local organizations and trade programs?
  • What are the organization’s relationships like with local leaders and industry partners? A solid base of local resources converts to smarter, more efficient operations, as well as a better understanding of local ordinances and zoning requirements that may impact your project.

An organization’s performance is a product of the collective capabilities and effort of its talent. Companies that invest in hiring diverse and strong talent, developing their employees, building collaborative teams, retaining an engaged and resilient workforce, implementing socially responsible business practices, and implementing effective rewards and recognition programs for all employees, will deliver excellence on any project. Maximize your company’s success by choosing a GC that has a reputation of excellence, is committed to being a good partner and community member, and demonstrates clear investment in their people and their culture.