Featured image depicting Construction industry interview with the former CEO of Jacobs Engineering

Construction industry interview with the former CEO of Jacobs Engineering

In a conversation with JMJ Co-Founder, Jay Greenspan, Craig Martin, former CEO of Jacobs Engineering, discusses his long-held commitment to a ‘Beyond Zero’ safety culture

By JMJ  |  May 2, 2022

In conversation with Jay Greenspan, Craig Martin talks about the construction company’s safety journey and shares some of the inspirational stories that have shaped his lifelong commitment to an Incident and Injury-Free™ workplace.

Podcast interview

JG: Craig, thank you for joining us today. Before we go into details about Jacobs, can you tell us a little about yourself and how you got to be CEO?

CM: I was born and raised in Kansas, attended Kansas University, and got my MBA at the University of Denver. My early career was in construction, I moved into construction management then engineering construction and covered pretty much all the bases before reaching president, then CEO level.  It’s interesting that part of our discussion today is about safety because that started for me with one of the first people I worked for on a job site. He was very focused on-site safety and did a good job by my standards at the time but one afternoon at home he put a ladder through a power line. It struck me that safety is a 24/7 thing, and that became important as we started on this journey.

JG: Can you tell us what Jacobs was like when you became CEO?

CM: Jacobs was founded in 1947 and was already a substantial company when I became CEO in 2006. It was around $4Bn revenue 25,000+ employees and in 15-20 countries. When I retired, it was at $12Bn, 65,000 employees and 30 countries.

JG: Tell us a little about the Jacobs safety journey prior to the stand you took. How had it been through the decades?

CM: I can’t really speak to anything before the early ‘80s but at that time the CEO saw that the company’s poor safety performance was threatening the business and aggressively went after improvements in safety performance, starting with the fundamentals. That’s what we continued to do for a long time, and we were successful at getting the numbers down. We were able to stay in business and we reduced our costs through a real focus on the basics of safety.

JG: Since you were considered an excellent company by industry standards, what caused some internal questioning of what you were doing? Where did that come from?

CM: It seemed to us that we were starting to hit a plateau. Safety was getting better every year, but we were growing faster than safety was improving. The result of that was that every year we were likely to hurt more people than the year before even if we had that improvement in safety, so we had to do something different. If you grow at 15% a year and you improve safety by 10%, you’re going to hurt 5% more people each year for evermore. That’s not the kind of company we wanted to be, and it was clear that our focus on fundamentals, while it was good, was not sufficient. To make a difference, we couldn’t just keep doing the same thing and hope for dramatically better outcomes.

JG: How did that viewpoint start to emerge? Was that something you and the executive team came up with?

CM: It really emerged from our pressuring particular field service people, and the leadership team in general, to get dramatic improvements in their safety performance. They came back and said, “We’re doing it as well as we can and it’s just not going to get better.” We all agreed we had to do something to help us think differently. Ultimately, we engaged JMJ and set about learning to be a different kind of company.

JG: With a company of that size and complexity with such a deep-rooted culture, you must have faced some significant challenges as a team. Could you talk a little about that?

CM: The transition was really convincing the team to make the fundamental change from believing that the current structures, processes, rules, procedures weren’t going to get us where we wanted to go. We had to develop a set of beliefs that would get us there, and transition the leadership team and the workforce to see this as something they wanted to embrace.

JG: How did you start that conversation with them? Are there any particular instances that stand out for you?

CM: I wouldn’t say any individual instance, but there were things you could see in the team as people began to ‘get it’. Once you got to the point where you were a ‘believer’, it was easier to get others to believe that we really could make a difference and get to a culture of caring; what we call ‘Beyond Zero.’  What would it be like if not only were there zero incidents and injuries, but people got healthier, stronger, better every day?

JG: It’s good to say it, but it’s another thing to make it real. What did it take to create such a significant shift in culture from your perspective?

CM: From my standpoint, I just had to have the blind faith that if we persevered, people would see the merit, and the power, of what we were trying to accomplish. I was convinced that if we gave people the opportunity to care and the tools to apply that, we would get lots of people who believed in Beyond Zero and what we were trying to accomplish.

JG: Other than blind faith, how did you present it, to the Board for example?

CM: We had good support from our Board from the beginning. They had heard over the years about the importance of safety. It was increasingly clear to them that this would not only drive safety but also performance across a broad spectrum. It was really the senior leadership team where there were some challenges; not that they weren’t committed and didn’t want to achieve this but there had been years of ‘blame and shame. We worked hard to be sure we didn’t do that, but it took time to get it ingrained in the system that the injured person is a victim.

JG: I suspect some of these executives, if they didn’t have a different way of working, were accountable for big business units and didn’t want to fail, blind faith was a difficult thing to have. How did it progress through the workforce?

CM: It began with the workforce doubting this was any different to anything else they’d been exposed to. There was a certain distrust or disbelief that it was anything other than the company trying to make more money. We needed to get to a level of trust that said the company is serious and does care. When these people bought in, it really made a difference.

JG: With something like transforming the entire safety culture of a massive corporation, I think what you’re saying is senior leadership really must be consistent and show the workforce this is a real change, not just the flavor of the month. Did you run into any of that with the workforce or contractors?

CM: If you start with the mid-level leadership in the organization who also had their share of disbelief, there was a strong feeling this would blow over. The way to overcome that is just to persevere. Don’t let it be called a ‘program’ because safety is relentless, you don’t fix it, it doesn’t go away, you can’t say that we’re done.

JG: How did the contractors relate to this?

CM: It varied by contractor. There were some, particularly the larger ones, that routinely worked in industries where safety was a big consideration in the hiring part of the contracting process. They fell in step pretty well. When you got into the civil infrastructure, or buildings, or even pharmaceutical industry clients, those contractors saw it as a cost and not a benefit. Sometimes it took a stick and most of those times, the desire to have the work overcame the desire not to do what needed to be done. We did have contractors come back after a year or two of working with us and say, “This really made a difference in our company.”

JG: I remember that Jacobs used to have commitment workshops for contractors. There would be 30 different contractors, the whole supply chain in the room talking about this from different perspectives. I think Jacobs was doing that because they needed get their entire supply chain behind it to succeed.

CM: That’s right. We decided we needed some kind of vehicle to get our customers and our supply base engaged and understanding what this was about. The commitment workshops were highly effective in doing that.

JG: What might other organizations experience in taking on this kind of a serious commitment to their organizational change?

CM: I think the hardest thing to do, in the early stages at least, is to get away from the whole blame and shame thing. Most companies, ours included, have all kinds of rules and if you break the rule, you’re bad and you get punished. I don’t think that works very well anywhere. People need to have a reason why they want to follow that rule or that procedure. In the world we’re talking about the search for who caused that accident quite often came to the person who got injured. That’s the opposite of a culture of caring. In a big engineering operation, most of the people who choose to be engineers like rules, processes, and procedures. When you ask them not to enforce a breakdown in those processes and procedures in a punitive way but instead to improve them so they work better, that’s a hard change to make.

JG: One of the things I observed at Jacobs was the shift from blaming the person who got injured to seeing it as a breakdown of leadership. That became a part of Jacobs’ culture but how did that happen?

CM: It was one of the hardest things we had to do. It goes back to a comment you made earlier. Executives are accustomed to accountability and control; these can work against each other. I recall an incident on a job site where a young man stepped out on a piece of grading. The grading wasn’t tied down, it twisted, he fell 16 feet and was badly hurt. The reason he stepped out wasn’t because he thought, “I’m going to step out on this grading and see if I can hurt myself,” he stepped out because he thought he could get the job done a little quicker and help the company.

With those kinds of accidents, you could either decide that he was a dummy for getting out there on that grading, or you can figure out what the positive motives were for him doing what he’s done, and think about how you can change the system, processes, rules, and beliefs to cause a different outcome.

JG: Sometimes people focus entirely on personal safety, sometimes they focus almost entirely on process safety. There needs to be a dual focus and that’s a wide range to cover. I think you guys did it in the best way possible. Could you say a little more about how?

CM: Because the company had been built over time out of several acquisitions, we had parts of the business that were involved in highly dangerous environments. Those parts of the company had become very good at process safety but in some cases their focus on personal safety wasn’t very good at all. Other parts of the company which had been in industries where the customer was very focused on personal space had gotten better at personal safety but didn’t even think about process safety. We were able to bring those kinds of thinking together following a disaster in Texas City. I’d far sooner it hadn’t happened, but the cooperation benefitted the organization in areas that might not have been thought about otherwise.

JG: I know that when you took this on some of it was on blind faith. However, you had also seen examples in other places where people achieved levels of safety performance that were beyond what you had experienced. Some of the leaders who are going to listen to this are probably confronting their own organizations and what they want. Sometimes it’s helpful to have some visual idea or description of how an Incident-Free or Beyond Zero culture looks or feels. Could you give us some texture to that so people can have a sense of what it might look like for them?

CM: What it looked like for us was something we talked about earlier, which is giving people permission to care. I know it’s odd, but I don’t think most companies explicitly give their people that permission. If you give that permission, and encourage the behaviors that manifest from it, people begin to believe you’re serious, that it’s OK to care. That was a powerful part of what we saw Beyond Zero doing. Also, and this goes back to my story about my superintendent from 40 plus years ago, going home safe isn’t adequate. When someone goes home safe, you want them to come back safe and if they go home and put a ladder in a power line that’s not going to work. You can have all the safety discussions you want at the office, but a good friend, a valuable employee is not with us anymore. I made sure we took it as a 24/365 obligation to make sure people went home safe and came to work safe; it can’t stop at the end of the workday. The other thing that became clear over time is that caring about safety and a culture of caring gave people permission to be concerned about other things – the customer, the public, the environment – there just isn’t any limit to what a caring culture can accomplish.

JG: One of our clients sat in at Chevron in El Segundo. The refinery manager said, “The workforce feels that you honestly care for them and your actions are consistent with it, so they show a reciprocal caring for the business.” He said there was no way he could have made that happen; it happened because they wanted it to. Did you experience people caring for the company and the business in ways they wouldn’t have before?

CM: Absolutely. I recall a video I watched a few years into this process where the foremen on a particular job site had all gotten together for about an hour-long chat about Beyond Zero and a culture of caring. They knew the primary focus was still safety, but when they got into their discussion about caring, it wasn’t just about caring for safety, it was about looking after each other. They all saw this as them working together. One of them said, “If Jack’s having trouble picking something up, I’m going to go over there and help him carry it, even if it’s not my job, because we care about each other.” I thought that was very powerful.

JG: One of the things that people love and remember are stories. Are there any stories from Jacobs that you’d like to share?

CM: I’ll share a couple of stories from early in the process. As we discussed, the organization struggled a bit to understand what Beyond Zero might mean. That was deliberate because we didn’t want people to just think getting to zero but about getting beyond it. One morning I walked into one of our offices and all the little candy jars that people sat on the counter were gone; instead, there were bowls of fruit. One or two of the people in the office had gotten together and said, “You know this candy can’t be good for us, but fruit would be. Let’s get rid of the candy and have fruit.” For me, that was priceless, it was spot on.

Another early story, one of our employees had been through the commitment process. He was driving home from work and saw a guy out in his yard on a riding lawnmower with his little girl on his lap. The guy drove by, got about half a block, turned around, went back, got out of his vehicle, stopped the guy and said, “ I don’t want to get into your space but you’re riding around with your little girl, neither of you have eye or ear protection on, you don’t have anything on your feet to protect you from potential hazards and your little girl is incredibly vulnerable. Are you really sure that’s what you want to be doing?” The father was a little put out, as you can imagine, but he thought about it for a minute or two and then turned to our guy and said, “You know, you’re right.” He shut the lawnmower down, got off, took the girl inside, came back out wearing eye and ear protection and shoes, got back on the mower and finished the job. I’ve told that story thousands of times because it’s exactly what we were trying to get to. This wasn’t about Jacobs, it was about care, it shows both care and courage.

JG: That’s amazing. I know there was a tragedy in the company, one of the engineers was unfortunately killed and his wife wanted it to make a difference for people so no one else would suffer like she did. Can you just briefly tell us that story?

CM: Sure. John, Kate’s husband, was on his way to a client meeting and he was, like the vast majority of our employees, always trying to help us get things done faster. We were going to redesign a little bridge and he decided that he’d stop on the way to the client meeting and measure it. He was by himself, and he started measuring the bridge. Unfortunately, the steel tape that he was using slid off the bridge down into a power line for the train. That’s a very high voltage line. It electrocuted him, and he died three days later. What he went through was horrific, but what Kate, his wife, went through was equally horrific. She  came up with the idea that she’d tell what happened from her perspective and we’d make a video of it. And so we did, and it was a tremendously moving video. It did something other videos and presentations I’ve seen about safety didn’t do because it wasn’t about John, although it’s clear he was a great guy, or what John did or didn’t do. That wasn’t relevant here. What was relevant was how damaging to Kate, John’s parents, Kate’s parents, the whole family, John’s death was. As we showed people that video around the world, it had a tremendous impact. We work in some of the cultures where death’s not as uncommon as it is here and the possibility you might die doing work is just one of those things. But if you start to think about the impact your death might have on your family, it changes your perspective. So that video got tremendous traction in places like India. I’m very proud of Kate and her achievement in conveying that message.

JG: For leaders that are going to take this on, what would you advise them to bring to it personally?

CM: First and foremost, don’t let someone make it into a ‘program’. You need to figure out what you want, then you have to stay the course and persevere. Over time, people will come to believe it, know the company means it, that it’s where they’re going and who they want to be. It’s easy when you have a failure to say it doesn’t work and we have to do something different; you can’t let that happen.

JG: What are the traits that leaders need to exhibit if they’re going to take this on?

CM: Let me try to talk about it a little differently. What leaders need to do at any level is make the concept of a caring culture personal to them. They have to integrate it and make it part of who they are. They have to tell stories, like the lawnmower story or Kate’s story, and they have to accept that they’re accountable. I think if they do that, they’ll start to see greater acceptance, energy, and momentum in the system.

One of the things I thought was interesting is the safety minute. Jacobs had been doing safety minutes for at least 25 years when I became CEO, and we continued to do them. But there was a marked change in the safety minute as we went along in that Culture of Caring process. The Beyond Zero safety minutes became more personalized, more relevant, and more thoughtful. People were investing in the safety moment to genuinely share something that could make a difference, not just check a box.

JG: To change course a little, I know you and your wife, Diane Dunne, this is part of your commitment to making a difference in the world. I know you’ve made a significant grant to the University of Kansas School of Engineering to further improve safety. Can you talk a little about what motivated that?

CM: After I retired, we looked back and felt we’d been very fortunate.  We were looking for a way to give back, and safety had been important to me and my wife. This seemed like a great way to contribute, and we needed something we thought would endure. Founding the National Center for Construction Safety was the vehicle we decided to use, and it’s also been great to continue to be involved. It’s nice to be engaged in something that keeps the momentum up.

JG: It’s also cutting edge. It’s not just maintaining what you did. Is there anything else you’d like to say to the people listening to this podcast who are thinking about their own leadership, organizations, the people that count on them?

CM: If you’re listening, you already care. All you have to do is let it go and you will be shocked by how powerful it can be; what you can do if you show that you care and let people around you care. It’s contagious, caring breeds caring.

JG: You’re a clear demonstration of that. Thank you on behalf of all the people listening and all the people that have been affected in a positive way by this.

About Craig Martin and ‘Beyond Zero – A Culture of Caring’

JMJ, began working with Martin in 2003 to reduce and eliminate worker injury in heavy industrial settings. During Martin’s leadership tenure as president and CEO of Jacobs (2006-2015), the firm joined the Fortune 500. Revenue grew to over $12 billion; workforce tripled to 65,000, with 250 offices in 30 countries. By 2010, Jacobs ranked in ENR’s list of the top 10 firms for design and construction. In 2007, Jacobs initiated “Beyond Zero – A Culture of Caring.” The company objective was to engage the company to commit to safety through new attitudes extending beyond the office and project sites into employees’ lifestyles and their communities. In 2019, Martin and his wife, Diane, founded the Craig and Diane Martin National Center for Construction Safety at the University of Kansas, his alma mater, with a $3.5-million endowment. The objective is to develop life-and-injury-saving ideas and technologies.

About JMJ

For over three decades, JMJ has been delivering impactful cultural change to help executives, leaders and front-line workers transform safety, sustainability, and business performance. We combine the deep experience of our people with our proprietary Transformation Cloud platform to deliver breakthrough results, making the impossible possible. www.jmj.com

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