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scott polsen

How Jim Collins helps this CEO survive the tough construction industry

“The care we give our people is not matched by many in the industry”

“Construction is a very, very difficult and tough industry.” – Scott Polsen, CEO Benmax.  
One of the many impressive members of The Growth Faculty is professional development enthusiast Scott Polsen, CEO of Benmax, a 140-staff company which designs, delivers and operates complex heating, ventilating, air-conditioning and refrigeration systems for Australia’s and New Zealand’s most iconic buildings.

In 2018, Scott attended The Growth Faculty Jim Collins Study Tour to the United States, and was so impressed, he this year sent two of his management team to do the same.  He’s also sent staff to one day sales and execution workshops.

Here Scott discusses why he takes professional development, health and wellbeing of his staff seriously in the hardened world of construction.

What’s your vision for Benmax? Still a work in progress, but to make the delivery and operations of healthy and sustainable mechanical systems easy for our clients.

Did you lock that in when you went on the 2018 Jim Collins Study Tour? It’s something that came off the back of that. I went to Jim Collins at the start of last year and brought a lot of learnings back to the management team, and over the course of the last 12 months there’s been a lot of learning and understanding of the group on where our strengths and weaknesses are.

Jim Collins is very focused on the right people on the bus.  I agree. I think it’s all about people on the bus. When you have a great culture, the culture in the business can dictate if people will fit in or not. It’s obvious, often, if there’s a misalignment there. After that, it really is about support.

Construction is very, very difficult and tough industry. The care we give our people, the services we provide; mental health services, and the physical health services we provide wouldn’t be matched by many in the industry. We really do understand that the pressures people come under in a construction project are unlike those in any other industry. It’s a very hardened industry.

In which way is it hardened?  The physicality of construction, and the constraints within a build. The old-fashioned construction management style that is shown by a lot of Australia’s leading builders is an adversarial type relationship. We try to stay away from working within that area, and try to stick with more partnership building relationships.

Do you ever think about the legacy you’re building as CEO of Benmax? No, I don’t. It was asked of me six months ago - what was the legacy I wanted to leave when I go? I don’t think about it much, but given the industry that we are in, I’d be very proud if I left the business where people enjoyed their work and felt part of a team, and feel that they were valued.  

You have attended events hosted by The Growth Faculty, can you share a couple of takeaways that helped you lead your team?
All of Jim Collins’s teachings are great. One of the advantages of the Collins study tour was that the way he approached the few days was to lay out a framework on how you could sequence the teachings in the books (Good to Great, Built to Last, Great by Choice). The books give you some great frameworks, but he taught us to put them into order in a way that you keep them front of mind and on the strategic agenda, and that was valuable. So much so, I sent others on my management team this year. They flew in from the U.S. this morning and they were as happy as I was at the end.

Also, Michael Bungay Stanier resonated with me around leadership style, and the powerful message in one session of the three questions (to suppress) that natural instinct to try to help people. We need to understand the situation better (before helping). The questions were “What do you need? What do you really need? But, what do you really need?”

He calls that instinct in us the Advice Monster. Ha ha, yes, that’s right.

What else do you do to learn how to be a better CEO? Make a huge amount of mistakes. Ha ha. And, I have a business coach Paul O’Dwyer, who’s a fantastic sounding board and gives it to me between the eyes (probably not as much as I need), but he’s been fantastic for me personally. Also, I’m an avid reader. I love reading good books, biographies around people that have faced adversity and been successful in the steps that they’ve taken, there’s good learning in all of those things, and you see  nobody was a superstar overnight, there were a lot of small steps.

Where do you see the value in being a member of The Growth Faculty? You guys provide a great opportunity for people to attend events. Other staff members have attended one day seminars; The Four Disciplines of Execution, and Jack Daly; and the books you send out…but also just that constant availability of quality people is key.

What drives you to emphasise personal development and ongoing learning within your team?  One of the greatest things in business is when people come to me with ideas and push me to do things. That’s my favourite time in the business, when ideas from our trades’ staff and our office staff just force us to do things. I find that quite a powerful movement within the business. So educating our people so that they can feel comfortable and confident to grow in their role I think is critical.  To give them experiences outside a normal business, to push people do new roles. Those simple learnings and couple of key takeaways that you can grab from even just a day learning can be professionally life changing.

What’s a myth about being a CEO that you’d love to bunk? That it’s difficult, cos it’s really easy. Ha ha. I think anybody can be a CEO, they just need to put the effort into learning, learning their craft first and then continually improve. I see a lot of people trying to step up too quick.

I’m blessed with being a second generation leader; my father Mick founded the business with another couple of gentlemen 33 years ago now. So I get a lot of my learnings from those previous leaders, and obviously great support. He’s still in the business, he’s still passionate. He doesn’t want to get involved in the stuff I do, he just wants to keep doing his craft.

What are some achievements you're most proud of?  Some of our significant projects we’ve worked on: Canberra Airport, comprising multi-billion dollar business parks and an award-winning airport; national institutions including the High Court of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Parliament House, Australian War Memorial; the justice precinct in Christchurch, which is the largest combined government building in New Zealand, and the arts centre rebuild, which at the time it was happening was the largest heritage rebuild in the world; and we’re just about to finish the Ministry of Primary Industries biocontainment facility – the head laboratory facility in Wellington that handles all the agricultural pathogens.   

How do you cope with having a team that is so far flung? Technology has played a major part in that. Five years ago we were quite naïve in our thinking around management, in particular that you could open up an office, and automatically all your culture and values and expertise would be planted into that office. We’ve come to learn that a new office is exactly that, it’s a new office. It’s a new culture; it can be a new skillset. And it really is dependent on the people on the ground as to how that office operates.

So you are many cultures in the one culture?
Underpinning all our offices is that family feel. Care for our people in a critical thing for us. We never want people feeling like their numbers on a spreadsheet. We want people to be close, to care for each other and care about their results so that they know that they’re valued.

What’s your role in achieving that?
It’s always focusing on culture, making sure that we’re providing opportunities for our people to grow and to learn. That’s the main thing. It’s always my number one focus. With great people you can do anything. Keeping them aligned onto their goals.

GREAT EIGHT, 8 quick getting-to-know-you questions we ask all our interviewees: 
  1. Recommended book? Anything Collins, and I really enjoyed 3HAG WAY: The Strategic Execution System that ensures your strategy is not a Wild-Ass-Guess! by Shannon Byrne Susko
  2. If you could co-author a book with anyone, who would it be, and what is the book title?  Michael Bungay Stanier, comedy would be good. Called The Falcon referring to when the ball hits you in the head in sport. It would be about those things you see coming but you’re not acting on, and they eventually hit you in the head.  
  3. What's a great bit of advice you could share?   Never stop learning and always treat people as you want to be treated.
  4. What's been your lowest moment, and how did you recover?  Probably in construction, the cyclical nature of it can obviously mean lower points in work. The lowest point is always having to let someone go because of that.
  5. How do you relax? Travel with family and friends, going to sport, tramping too.  
  6. What’s a fun fact that’s not widely known about you?  At 30, I had a golf handicap of two.
  7. What's the secret of success? Focus, and building a great team.
  8. What's a prediction for 2025? Data ownership and analytics will become more widely available and a hotly contested area for many businesses. And, I’d like to think our government take climate change seriously, and we are on our way to a more sustainable future with some more key initiatives.

Interested in stories from CEOs? The Growth Faculty is hosting one of the most famous and most radically candid CEOs in the world, the former CEO of PepsiCo Indra Nooyi in June 2019. Responsible for running the second largest food and beverage business in the world by net revenue for 12 years from 2006-2018, Nooyi will speak at an exclusive dinner An Evening with Indra Nooyi for corporate executives. More information, click here.