Is your business model standing in the way of innovation at your construction business?

2020 was an unprecedented period of change for the construction industry. The World Green Building Council is calling for buildings and infrastructure around the world to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

Population growth and public health concerns are also expected to bear impact on the construction industry. Innovation at pace is vital, but is its business model standing in the way?

The Current Construction Company Business Model

Thanks to a paternalistic approach where business leaders treat their employees like an extended family, the construction industry has benefitted from an extremely loyal workforce. A minimum of 15 years’ experience in the field is not uncommon. In many cases, employees are family, with many following in their parents or grandparents footsteps. But, in a decade of exponential change and disruption, is loyalty enough?

Academics have described paternalistic leadership as “a dominant authoritative personality who acts as a matriarch or patriarch and treats partners and employees like they are members of large extended families. In turn, the leaders expect trust, obedience and loyalty from the employees.”.

a ceo

The Advantages of Paternalistic Business Model

The benefits of this paternal model can be plentiful. A focus on employee welfare means decisions tend to favour the happiness of its workers, with redundancies and job losses avoided - which is cost effective in itself. All of this has a huge impact on employee satisfaction. Employees feel valued, resulting in a motivated and loyal workforce.

Limits on Progression within Construction Businesses

But the benefits need to be considered against the negatives. A loyal workforce means low turnover, and this can present problems. If no one moves on, the opportunity for employees to grow and develop is limited.

There can be problems if the next rung on the career ladder is filled by someone who intends to stay with the company for the best part of a lifetime. Promising junior members or middle management can find themselves waiting 15 years before the opportunity for a promotion occurs.

They can start to feel stifled and held back, unable to progress despite their high-quality work, loyalty, and aptitude for the job. Paternalism can also easily slip into a real imbalance in authority, which can further stifle talent and dampen innovation.

a construction site

The solution to Stagnation in the Industry?

I recently discussed this topic with President & CEO from Gilbane Building Company, Mike McKelvy. Mike noted, “Sometimes we need to acknowledge that the C-Suite doesn’t always know best”. The key, he argues is creating opportunities for employees to share their thoughts and ideas “without fear of being criticised of chastised for coming up with a different view”.

This was echoed by Head of Shared Services and Vice President of HR and Communications at China Construction America, Tom Crane. The answer, he suggests, is “finding a balance from the best of both worlds” that cares for employees, while “making space for entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, diversity of thought, and innovation.”

two construction workers planning together

Mike highlighted how Gilbane fosters innovation by bringing together a cross-pollinated team of employees to address problems and find creative solutions. In this, he shows himself to be a beacon of best practice in balancing a paternalist model with innovation,

By bringing together leaders with high potential from different parts of the core business and asking them to find and solve a problem within the company, Gilbane has made space for innovation and creativity. Far more than a tick-box exercise, the group are then given the autonomy to make their proposed solution a reality - an example of true innovation in business.

The programme has also proven to bring a great level of employee satisfaction and pride when they can see the real tangible impact they can have within the business. This transforms old systems of paternalistic dependence to adaptive, rewarding modes of independence.

Mike McKelvy’s work at Gilbane is a living example of how a different style of leadership can bring about much-needed business model innovation. One that encourages its employees to feel empowered to make decisions and step up with creative solutions. Tom Crane argues that this is about “letting your guard down, showing emotional intelligence, and even vulnerability” to foster collaboration, entrepreneurial spirit, and interdependence.

Welcoming New Talent in Construction

Another casualty of the current dominant system is that extreme loyalty also means limited opportunities for new talent to enter the business. Where there are vacancies, some businesses could be accused of falling foul of nepotism.

a woman measuring

This does nothing to help an industry which is struggling to attract diverse talent to bring diversity of thought and perspective that will help it to solve challenges, improve the products or service offered, and improve their customer value proposition..

Leaders need to think about how they can bring in fresh talent with new ideas and diverse thinking, whilst also creating space for their loyal employees to flourish and not feel stifled while working on construction projects.

In Conclusion…

The creation of new roles and new divisions, or reskilling and retraining, are worth the time and investment to bring about rapid innovation needed in the exponential decade. Put simply, if the construction industry does not change its approach, it may struggle to attract talent and fulfil its role in the future of our society, compared to competitors offering more advancement and different modes of project management.

Tom Crane concludes “The construction industry employs some of the best people in the world. But we need to help them to see the bigger picture, that what they do every day is contributing to the betterment of society. We need to think seriously about how we can apply what we have done for hundreds of years to better society through the built environment.”

Granger Reis are an Executive Search and Consultancy business committed to supporting the construction industry as it moves into a new age. We have a deep understanding of the pressures business face and the diverse talents needed to build a strong, flexible team in an ever changing landscape. Find out more or learn about joining our team of innovators.


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