To meet the challenges of dynamic times, an established general contractor modernized its culture by empowering employees.
Jack Bowen has been working in construction most of his adult life. An affable, self-effacing native Tennessean with a soft drawl and a disarming disposition, he’s the president and CEO of EMJ, a prominent general contractor with regional offices in Chattanooga and Dallas that’s delivered projects in nearly all 50 states.
Starting with the company in 2005 as an assistant superintendent, he grew through the ranks to become CEO in 2021. In that time, having served in nearly every management position—including on the frontlines in the field—he experienced firsthand the construction industry’s demanding and often stressful work environment and the effect it had on his employees and the company, and he didn’t like it.
“The culture was always tough, and I felt it could be much better,” he says. Jack liked the work and learned to thrive on the pressure and high expectations. But not everyone could, so the turnover rate was high, which was costly and demoralizing. This confirmed for Jack something he’d felt intuitively for a long time and would prove instrumental in reshaping the company’s culture. “I always knew that how we treated our employees would translate into how we treated our clients and partners.”
This all came to a head a few years back when Jack had a particularly bad experience on a project that convinced him it was time to take action and make a change.
“We had a client who treated my people badly, and that solidified in my heart that there has to be a better way.”
Laying the foundation
Despite knowing the transformation he sought wouldn’t be easy, Jack was determined to rethink the way the company did business. Driven by the belief that putting people first was key, he partnered with Heather Collins, EMJ’s EVP of People, in whom he found not only a strategic partner but a kindred spirit. Together they crafted a roadmap for this new vision, and their first stop was the people department itself.
“Before I started, it was very segmented and disjointed,” Heather explains. “Different teams reported to different managers, so we unified all these functions to get better collaboration. This helped us invest in our people and foster all the amazing talent we had.”
With better collaboration in place, Jack and Heather set their sights on their employee engagement programs. To assess their efficacy, they partnered with Gallup—the workplace consulting and research firm best known for their public opinion polling—to develop a robust engagement program that would provide actionable data and help identify what was working and what wasn’t.
“To be a 21st-century company and a compelling place to work, we have to do things differently.”
Convinced that true engagement begins with listening, they instituted a series of regular employee surveys that provide detailed feedback and metrics to measure success against. But, as Heather points out, listening alone isn’t enough.
“Don’t ask questions unless you’re going to do something with it,” she says. “And then you need to prioritize, these are the things we need to do right now, and these are more long-term. Then you communicate that back to the employees so they know you’re taking concrete steps and that their concerns aren’t falling on deaf ears.”
Staying true to your vision
Change is hard—and doesn’t come without a price. When you’re blazing a new trail, you’re going to have to make difficult decisions. For Jack and Heather, that meant having to part ways with some colleagues and even clients who couldn’t embrace this new direction.
“It’s tough to walk away from work,” Jack admits. “But you know that in the long run it’s better for the company, so at some point you have to look in the mirror and make those tough choices.”
“It’s crucial to have unwavering commitment from your senior leadership, and we did,” Heather adds. “Without their partnership and support we wouldn’t have been able to make the changes we needed.”
Putting people above profits is a mantra Jack says he learned at a young age.
“It’s a lesson both my dad and grandfather instilled in me. They understood the importance of keeping people preeminent. We have to have profits to do well, and creating an environment where employees feel supported and are able to do their best work is how you get there.”
Being the change you want to see
It also requires a certain amount of courage to look inside and take an honest assessment of your company’s culture and business practices, because you may not like what you find.
“If you’re truly objective about it, you’re going to realize that it’s not as good as you think it is, and that’s a sobering thought,” Jack confesses. “You see the holes that you need to go fix, and you need to do it sooner than you thought.”
“Once you start peeling that onion you realize that not everybody is having the same experience you are,” Heather adds. “They may not have the same support system or the ability to have open conversations or challenge one another, but they should. And this is what the engagement survey is telling us.”
“You have to check your ego at the door and accept you may not be as good as you think you are.” –Jack Bowen, EMJ CEO
This is especially true for managers getting performance reviews from their direct reports, including Jack himself.
“I have a summary report that scores me, and I can see how that’s going up or down over a six-month period,” Jack explains. “An insecure person is not going to want to get that raw feedback. So you have to check your ego at the door and accept you may not be as good as you think you are. But if I can do that and see it as an opportunity, then I can work hard to make it better.”
To help managers create a more meaningful and engaging workplace experience, they implemented a “boss to coach” training initiative that teaches supervisors how to lead high-performing teams and strengthen workplace culture by developing employees.
“The number one reason people leave companies is because of their managers, not because they hate their jobs,” Jack says. “So we wanted to address that head on. We have people who excel in the field, and we want to make sure they have the tools and resources to be good leaders and mentors of the next generation.”
Jack and Heather understand that making a dramatic shift like this isn’t a one and done deal. They see it as a journey not a destination, and so they’re committed to building on what they’ve accomplished and are excited for the next phase of the company’s evolution.
“We have more challenges to tackle,” Jack says. “To be a 21st-century company and a compelling place to work, we have to do things differently. So we’re having broader conversations not just about our business and the industry, but about the profound changes happening in society and how we prepare for them. These are complicated issues, but now we’re much better equipped to deal with them.”