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When Absence Makes the Team Grow Stronger

A CEO rethinks his role after a tour in Iraq.
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The framed photograph is typical corporate commemorative. Three executives from Commodore Builders, decked out in their best formalwear, beam as they accept an award at the 2007 Inc. 500 ceremony in Chicago. CEO Joe Albanese, who flanks them on the left, is smiling, too. But there's no telling why. The night of the event, he was nearly 7,000 miles away in Kuwait, serving as the officer in charge of a naval construction regiment. A thoughtful employee scanned in his figure from another photo.

The Inc. 500 conference wasn't all Albanese missed in his nine months away from Commodore. From February through October 2007, the construction company embarked on the two largest projects in its history. It grew 48 percent in 2007, and revenue reached about $69 million. Thirteen employees were hired. And the company moved across town, to a new building in Newton, Massachusetts, that Albanese had seen just a few times.

What changed most about Commodore, however, was its founder's role. While Albanese sat in a trailer in the desert sweating over how to safely move troops and supplies to an oil platform off the coast of Iran, Commodore's executive team was rebalancing his workload, assigning him new responsibilities and gently easing others from him. Albanese had prepared this group to function without him, and he watched with pride but also a trace of melancholy as it did just that. "I knew one measure of my success was that I'd feel as irrelevant as could be," says Albanese. "And I feel pretty irrelevant."

Of course, Albanese could never be irrelevant at Commodore, and not just because he started it. Albanese is a powerful presence, with a confident bearing and a gaze dubbed "borderline ferocious" by one employee. An avid student of leadership who has struggled to balance military and civilian management styles, he always strove to lead Commodore by collaboration. Still, executives in the meetings he ran often hesitated to voice their opinions until Albanese expressed his. "Active listening does not come naturally to me," Albanese admits. "I have a driving, intense style that sometimes makes people uncomfortable."

His approach is not so much hands-on as hands-all-over. "He had his fingerprints on everything," says Lauren Larson, Commodore's vice president of organizational development. "Before he left, he held center stage. There was almost nothing he wasn't involved in." If he heard about a scheduling problem at one of the company's construction projects, he wouldn't tell someone to fix it; he would wade in himself until it was fixed. "People say don't sweat the details," says Albanese. "Well, details are core to who we are and who I want us to be."

Albanese always suspected that he would temporarily be reduced to bit player in his own production. A Navy veteran, he had joined the reserves in 1988, serving one weekend a month while working for construction companies around Boston. He was a vice president at Shawmut Design and Construction, a big company based in Boston, when September 11 and its aftermath made deployment a when rather than if proposition. As Albanese devoted more time to his work in the reserves, mobilizing troops to Afghanistan, "for the first time my military career was causing tension with the people I worked with," he says. He needed more flexibility to travel, even to be sent overseas. He decided he would get that flexibility atop his own company.

At first, Albanese tried to buy a construction business with an established management team, hoping to plug himself in and unplug when necessary. When he couldn't find a good fit, he started planning Commodore in November 2002. "Around the same time, I was getting classified information that we were building up to invade Iraq," says Albanese. "I got a call from a captain friend who said, 'Joe, your name keeps coming up as a guy who could be chief of staff for one of the regiments. You just started your business. What does that mean?' "

To Albanese, it meant making sure Commodore had the strongest foundation money could buy. The business was barely operational when he hired two vice presidents and a CFO who boasted more than 60 years of construction experience among them. "In a start-up construction company, the founder usually builds the team job by job, as they find more work and need capacity," says Albanese. "I had to build a core team that could lead the company in my absence."

Commodore grew swiftly on the backs of its principals' reputations and relationships. Albanese and COO Tom Comeau are both sons of Boston construction dynasties; along with vice president Andy Fraser, they could point to dozens of projects, including retail stores and research labs, they had completed in earlier positions. From 2002 to 2006, Commodore worked on dozens of high-profile buildings in Massachusetts, including banks, a brewery, and structures for Harvard and MIT. At the beginning of 2007, it had locked in two major projects worth $30 million combined.

In February of that year, Albanese was mobilized to go to Iraq. But even as he packed his bags for the Middle East, he couldn't imagine extracting himself from Commodore. "He said, 'We're going to have telephones and videoconferencing. I'm going to set up this meeting, that meeting. I can do it all,' " recalls Comeau. "Because that's the way he is."

Albanese spent the first few weeks of his tour in the United States, going through training. During that time, he was still heavily involved in Commodore's day-to-day management. "But as he got sucked into the desert, the phone calls were less frequent," says Larson. "At first I felt this huge need to tell him everything I was doing. But as it got further in, we were making decisions, and it just didn't make sense to bring him up to speed.

"I also felt he wasn't focused on it anymore," she adds. "Once he had his full grasp on the desert, it totally took him away."

Albanese continued to view the company's financial reports, though he didn't weigh in on them. The executive team alerted him when the company landed work and sent him a book with photos and backgrounds of new hires so he could greet them by name when he returned. Albanese stood ready to get involved in the face of business-threatening disasters, but none occurred.

Increasingly, says Albanese, "I would just call to say hi."

In september, shortly before Albanese returned to Boston, Comeau, Fraser, Larson, and CFO Paula Gerry arranged a conference call with him. They suggested a new division of duties, in which Albanese would relinquish all things tactical -- including his beloved book of projects that he personally managed. The executive team would assume day-to-day leadership, with Comeau running the critical weekly operations and executive meetings, as he had been doing in the CEO's absence, and taking over some of Albanese's direct reports. Albanese would concentrate on three areas: client relationships, succession planning, and the next five-year plan.

"Just the fact that we had a reentry plan was a little off-putting for him," says Larson. "But he was very aware of the fact that his coming back would have an effect on people who had filled his position. And he saw this was an opportunity to take his enormous energy and focus it where it's most needed: the presence in the marketplace."

Albanese expects the changes at Commodore would have happened eventually -- or should have, if he had ever been able to let go. His Middle Eastern sojourn speeded up events and provided clear demarcation between two eras. And the foundation he erected out of necessity is paying off. Still, he is not yet totally at ease with all the changes at Commodore. Almost every week he stumbles across some new procedure and questions it. But, though sometimes he would have done it differently, he won't override his executives' decisions. When project issues emerge -- problems with schedules, budgets, or materials -- he reins himself in, albeit with difficulty. At first, that reticence discomfited those accustomed to the CEO's dig-into-everything style, says Larson. "We thought, Is it something we said? Yikes!" But they have learned that their boss is just being true to his word.

The change is felt most powerfully at operations meetings, which are more relaxed affairs under Comeau. Now Albanese doesn't even attend those meetings. He'll pause outside the door, laugh, wave, and walk on.

"I'm still trying not to impose myself," says Albanese, who oscillates between we and they when talking about the business. "There have been days when I wasn't sure I was being productive." But those doubts are receding as his external focus begins translating into large new projects. There is almost no chance that he will be mobilized again this year or next, so he is focusing fully on Commodore. "We've had a couple of proposals where my involvement really steered the ship in a different way," says Albanese. "That felt good."

For more on CEOs who have been affected by the war in Iraq, check out "War Stories"
Last updated: Jun 1, 2008

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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