President and CEO of CORE Consultants, Inc. (Littleton, CO), a professional services firm with a unique culture that empowers its people to thrive at home, at work, and in their community.
By Liisa Andreassen
Calvert leads the charge at CORE and advises, “Love what you do, and do what you love. Work hard, play hard, innovate, learn, and challenge yourself every day. The CORE way!” This philosophy has been paramount to CORE’s success and exponential growth.
A conversation with Blake Calvert.
The Zweig Letter: How has COVID-19 impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting/working remotely?
Blake Calvert: Thankfully, our company had made remote working technology investments (VPN upgrades, Zoom, Teams, Intranet) in 2019. At that time, we just thought the technology would help some employees with work-life balance and significantly improve productivity companywide when Denver gets some of its nasty snowstorms. Little did we know it would pave the way to move very quickly in March of 2020. We had 100 percent of people working out of the office the week of March 16. As many companies found, utilization and productivity picked up significantly with fewer distractions. At this point, we see no reason to rush back to the office with limited productivity impacts on the business. Here is the paradigm shift: Our company has been performing so well with remote working, we are planning on significantly broadening the use of it in the future for all employees. CORE and our employees will benefit from increased productivity, profitability, more family time, and more personal time. Lessons learned: Empower your employees and proactively invest in technology!
TZL: You became CEO of CORE in 2013. How did previous jobs prepare you to take on this role? What were the most helpful skills?
BC: With more than 25 years of industry experience, two of the greatest things I’ve learned are:
- Never stop learning. Learning comes in so many different forms, but I’ve found that observation is powerful. Over the course of my career, I’ve observed great things firms accomplished along with challenges faced. Observing and analyzing the good and the bad gave me a good roadmap for what I wanted to do when I started CORE at age 43. I joke with others that if we had started the business much earlier, our business goals and success would be much further along. However, 10 years ago I would have lacked the knowledge and maturity to really create something unique. Keeping a learning mindset has helped to build CORE into the great company it is today.
- Turn negativity into change. Effectively turning negativity into change has also been vital. That was the catalyst for starting CORE. I wanted to create the kind of company that I wanted to work for. And when we first started out that was one of the cardinal rules – no whining! If you don’t like it, fix it. Address it. Be part of the solution. That mindset has helped to shape our great culture. We’re not perfect, but we aspire to it every day.
TZL: What role does your family play in your career? Are work and family separate, or is there overlap?
BC: CORE exists today because I was trying to get a better balance with my family. I wasn’t getting that balance with other companies that I worked for. And my philosophy is that if “I” want it, all employees should have it. While balance is at the core of our mission statement, as the managing principal, it’s hard to get the balance that I need so there’s always overlap.
Some of the overlap has been great. My wife Heather has been a significant contributor to the business. When I started CORE, she stepped away from her 20 years as an executive in commercial insurance to ensure we could manage our family. However, her skill set was invaluable for CORE. Her leadership, feedback, and expertise in operations and risk management enabled us to get the business up and running quickly and grow considerably from day one. Today, she continues to be a significant contributor to our success.
Some of the overlap hasn’t been so great, but I try my best to not let work encroach too much on family time. We’ve provided tools for all our employees (myself included!) to give them greater flexibility to work from home or remotely so we’re not all anchored to an office or desk. It doesn’t matter where you work, just focus on the results.
TZL: It is often said that people leave managers, not companies. What are you doing to ensure that your line leadership are great people managers?
BC: I agree with this statement 100 percent. For CORE, finding great managers starts with our recruiting process. We must get the right people through the door in the beginning which means taking steps in the interview process to make sure that our managers align with our culture, values, and mission. While technical skills are important, they’re secondary in our hiring process.
CORE also provides training, mentoring, and support for all our managers. We’ve hired Zweig Group to do PM training, I do one-on-one lunches with each of my managers, and we’ve taken advantage of training through ACEC. We’re also big on employee feedback. We do bi-annual employee surveys so we can gauge the needs of our managers and employees. We take that feedback seriously and implement changes and improvements where we can.
TZL: CORE recently opened an office in Winter Park. What was the main impetus there? New services? Expanded geographic presence?
BC: Opening a Winter Park office was a natural evolution for our company because who doesn’t love a powder day on a Tuesday? In all seriousness, many of our employees, including myself, are connected to Winter Park, Grand County, and the mountain community. We had a unique opportunity to make a strategic hire in Winter Park and move one of our Denver leaders to the area full-time. We have a lot of great relationships in the region. Our Winter Park team is well-connected and has been instrumental in bolstering our public and institutional experience. With its close proximity to Denver, there’s tremendous growth on the horizon for Grand County and we’re excited to be part of it. We’re thrilled with the progress our team has made building our business in the mountains, and we’re already making plans to expand our presence up there.
TZL: Ownership transition can be tricky, to say the least. What’s the key to ensuring a smooth passing of the baton? What’s the biggest pitfall to avoid?
BC: I’ve observed that many firms don’t focus on leadership transition. When my business partners and I founded CORE, we started with the end in mind so that we could all be comfortable with the expectations of the business. I knew that I was comfortable being the managing principal of this business for about 10 years and wanted to have a transition game plan in place well before I turned 65. With that initial time frame, we’ve looked at what we need to do – internally and externally – to move toward that goal. While we don’t have all the answers yet, we’ve implemented some things that will get us to that goal including:
- Recruiting our replacements.
- Plus-one mentality – taking our replacements to meetings so the hand-off isn’t a big deal when the time comes.
- Ensuring there are reasonable buy/sell clauses in partnership agreements that facilitate faster owner transition. For example, we make the cost of ownership attainable and realistic for the right people who will grow the business.
I think the biggest pitfall to avoid is putting it off and thinking you have plenty of time to make the transition. You could miss an opportunity to retain some of your best talent that could help grow the company in the future.
TZL: Research shows that PMs are overworked, understaffed, and that many firms do not have formal training programs for PMs. What is your firm doing to support its PMs?
BC: CORE has implemented several initiatives to make sure that we’re supporting our PMs including:
- Training. We’re developing internal training and using multiple external training resources for our PMs including Zweig Group’s Project Management for AEC Professionals seminar, year-long ACEC management training, and a plan for executive coaching for all our top leadership, not just project managers. If we want to be the best, we have to start at the top and improve ourselves first. We also encourage our PMs to participate in industry organizations and get involved in their training and mentorship programs.
- Balance. We’ve implemented – and continue to implement – policies that encourage life balance. We hire fully-functioning adults and trust them. We want our PMs to take their PTO so they have time to rest and rejuvenate. We also provide tools to give our PMs flexibility to work from home if they need to. I constantly tell all our employees that we can always work around life’s important moments. Putting work first and not being present for your kid’s school play or an important family event is not acceptable.
- Knowledge management. We’ve invested time and money in creating effective knowledge management tools to make sure we capture lessons-learned streamline efficiency. It’s still a work in process, but we have a great start.
TZL: How do you unwind at the end of the day? Work/life balance seems important at CORE. How do you make sure you follow suit?
BC: Life balance is important to CORE and one of the primary reasons that I started this company. In all reality though, it’s a constant balance for me to fit it all in. Sometimes I do well and sometimes I don’t. Remembering the “why” behind starting CORE is a good reminder to ensure that I reserve time for my family now. If you don’t live for now, time will pass and those special moments are gone. I don’t know if true work/life balance exists. However, companies can make it a primary focus and it must start at the top. Basically, what all employees (including me) are looking for is trust and flexibility from their employer, supervisor, and team. With a culture that supports balance, employees should feel empowered to make work and life decisions, regardless of when the moments fall during the week. For me, my ideal way of unwinding is spending some time on my mountain bike in Winter Park and enjoying a good Colorado or Oregon IPA at sunset.
TZL: Diversity and inclusion are lacking. What steps are you taking to address the issue?
BC: Diversity and inclusion are a huge problem in our industry. Yet, as we are desperate for finding top talent and keeping it, we ignore this issue. The paradigm needs to shift. Conversations about diversity need to be normalized, not relegated to “we’ll get to it” or change the subject because it’s uncomfortable. Additionally, the side conversations and water cooler talk must stop. We need to make the office a safe and trustworthy space for everyone.
This is not a problem for the groups affected to fix. We, as company leaders, must actually lead and set the standard, expectations, and accountabilities. Those companies that don’t get on board will not be sustainable. Diversity is not something you just check the box after a training or hire, then move on.
A huge component of our work at CORE is the overall problem solving and collaboration of people. If you don’t have that diversity and you’re only getting one side or only a few different segments of what people can offer, you’re not providing the best service you can for your clients. Those that figure this out and embrace it, will have a strategic advantage over the competition.
CORE supports programs including Zweig Group’s ElevateHER, Denver’s STEMBlazers, Women in Energy, and the Society of Women Engineers to be part of the solution in shifting the culture. It’s more than just lip-service to us. We want to be part of the solution.
TZL: A firm’s longevity is valuable. What are you doing to encourage your staff to stick around?
BC: Competitive pay, benefits, and perks are great things to offer employees, but I’m convinced that our employees don’t stay because of these things alone. Keeping our employees around for the long-term comes back to a cultured-centered approach. In addition, some of our benefits and community engagement programs are designed to align with our company values. For example, we offer our employees an “Opt-Outside” program that reimburses them up to $500 per year to get outside and enjoy our beautiful state. Employees use this benefit for ski passes, camping gear, national park passes, and more. The program promotes personal health, wellness, and physical outdoor activity by encouraging staff to disconnect, unplug and recharge. We could just add that $500 to their bonuses, but this unique program encourages behavior that aligns with our culture and values. And what we’re doing is working. Many of our employees just laugh and then tell us when a recruiter calls them!