You Can't Buy Culture: Leading with Care
Amid a constantly shifting world landscape, millions of people are rethinking how they work and live. The “Great Resignation,” an ongoing economic phenomenon in which roughly 33 million Americans have quit their jobs since the spring of 2021, is still going strong. Similar trends are also at play on a global scale. Despite the mass exodus and high labor demand, the construction industry remains in the grip of a skilled labor shortage that has lasted for more than a decade. Recent speculation about the Great Resignation focuses on employee dissatisfaction with wages, yet research shows that a toxic corporate culture is 10 times more significant in predicting employee turnover than compensation. Employees are the backbone of a company, and as the modern workplace continues to evolve, employers who transform their organizational culture to meet the needs of their people will be better-positioned for what’s next.
Our team recently had the pleasure of speaking with Aimee Comer, VP of People and Development at Robins & Morton, about the power of culture. Robins & Morton is a privately-held construction firm based in Birmingham, Alabama, that specializes in the construction of healthcare, hospitality, higher education, entertainment, sports, and government buildings. They are an industry leader in the quality and safety of their projects and consistently rank among the 100 largest U.S. builders by Engineering News-Record (ENR). In 2022, Robins & Morton was named among the Top 100 Best Places to Work in the U.S. by Glassdoor’s Employee Choice Awards for the first time—a testament to the unique culture of caring they have worked hard to cultivate since the company’s inception in 1946.
Keep reading to see our interview with Aimee, as she walks us through the ways Robins & Morton continues to evolve their company culture alongside the ever-changing construction industry.
With the industry facing a significant labor shortage, why is it so important we focus on creating great culture within construction?
The growing need for talent is a common theme across the majority of industries: healthcare, education, aviation, and construction, to name a few. The pandemic made employees reassess the way they want to work, and they are raising their expectations—from compensation, to their work environment, to even their lifestyle. However, this challenge really isn’t new to the construction industry. The demand for construction professionals has consistently outpaced the available workforce we’ve had in the last 10 years. At Robins & Morton, we had to become experts in the wants, needs, and must-haves of construction professionals, which has prepared us for this moment they’re calling the “War on Talent.” Culture is the one thing you can’t buy. Our culture sets us apart from our peers and inspires loyalty in our team members. By focusing on our culture and how we can be a good employer, we’re more likely to retain and attract new team members to our Robins & Morton family.
“Culture is the one thing you can’t buy.”
What kind of cultural initiatives is your company taking around diversity and inclusion? How can companies drive meaningful change?
In the early 2000s, we recognized we could expand our diversity and inclusion efforts beyond our company to the construction community, which led us to create a local ACE mentoring chapter in Alabama. ACE focuses on recruiting high school students into architecture, construction and engineering careers. When we started the program, we decided to intentionally recruit from inner city Birmingham schools. During that time, we also increased our recruiting from Historically Black Colleges and Universities and devoted resources to create student scholarships for women and other groups historically underrepresented within building science, construction management and engineering programs.
A while back, we started what we call the “Family Table” to actively advance diversity, inclusion, and equity within Robins & Morton. Our Family Table is based on the belief that the best way to recognize and understand our differences is to start with what most unites our team members—our company’s family-like culture. The Family Table also creates a safe space for our team members to address any uncomfortable silences. To ensure the Family Table stays true to our culture and values, while also focusing on what’s important to our people, our efforts are guided by a team of facilitators drawn from across the company who represent different backgrounds, cultures, races, genders, and roles. By asking our team members to lead this process and communicate the wants and needs of their peers, we're able to drive lasting change from within our organization.
“By asking our team members to lead this process and communicate the wants and needs of their peers, we're able to identify things that most matter to our people and drive lasting change from within our organization.”
How can companies share best practices, partner, and learn from one another to help make positive shifts in the construction industry as a whole?
Our company, industry peers, and industry advocacy organizations are working really hard to flip the script on stereotypes in construction. We’ve seen tremendous headway in recent years with the variety of roles available, the diversity of the workforce, and the positive messaging around careers in construction.
Robins & Morton has an ongoing partnership with the ABC Academy of Craft Training, which is a unique craft academy right here in Birmingham, Alabama. They partner with the construction industry and the State of Alabama’s K-12 education system to teach students about the industry. Additionally, they give students who don’t want to go to college or can’t afford to go to college opportunities for craft career paths.
I'm also in a peer group with the VP of Human Resources at one of our direct competitors—and when you build those relationships with each other, those walls start falling down so you can start sharing best practices and lessons learned. A few weeks back, the two of us were talking about how support departments such as Accounting, Human Resources, and IT aren’t siloed into construction and so they’re being recruited by other industries in competitive ways which we’ve had to adjust to. These types of partnerships make us better as an organization.
“..when you build those relationships with each other, those walls start falling down so you can start sharing best practices and lessons learned.”
Is there a mentor who has had a significant positive impact on your career and how can a strong culture of mentorship help to propel culture?
My dad. He graduated from Auburn University and was a mechanical engineer. After spending several years working down in the Opelika area, he moved to Talladega, Alabama, as a mechanical engineer for an overhaul business around 1978 and worked his way up to eventually owning that business in 1990. He’s very people-centered and the way he took care of people and the way people gravitated toward him because he truly cared is something I’ve taken with me throughout my career. He’s always taught me that there’s not a single role or responsibility within an organization that’s not important—that it’s there for a reason and no one position is more important than another. I've taken that with me, too. Our Chairman and CEO Bill Morton might be, outside of my dad, one of the most caring individuals I've ever met and leads by that example at all times. Showing our team that we care and encouraging them to do the same with others has had a tremendous impact on our workforce. We have a culture of caring and people feel it as soon as they’re here.
“He’s always taught me that there’s not a single role or responsibility within an organization that’s not important—that it’s there for a reason and no one position is more important than another. I've taken that with me, too.”
What advice do you have for companies looking to learn more about improving culture in the workplace?
I truly believe that an excellent workplace culture is not something that you only write a paragraph about on your website, use as a tagline, or give as a script to your team to say at a job fair. Excellent culture has to be a part of every single thing you say and do, day in and day out. It starts at the top, but also needs to be replicated in every area of the business. To do that, it has to be continually communicated, displayed, and repeated. Not only in the good times, but also in the most challenging of times, which is sometimes when people find it the hardest to do.
“Excellent culture has to be a part of every single thing you say and do, day in and day out.”
A big thank you to Aimee for taking the time to speak with us about the importance of a healthy company culture!
With 83% of contractors reporting difficulty in finding skilled workers, the construction industry faces an extremely challenging labor dynamic. Taking ownership of this recruitment and retention problem also includes taking a hard look at your company’s culture and how it’s evolving. Culture, diversity and inclusion, and how you treat employees are in the DNA of any great company—from the top to the tail. It’s in what you do every day, how you make decisions, and how you recruit. By creating great workplaces, we can help ensure that everyone works in a healthier, safer, and better community.
Procore is partnering with the experts, recruiters, educators, and parents who are working together to attract the next generation of construction talent. Get key insights and practical strategies in our three-part series with industry leaders across the world by watching our Construction Workforce Development Series.