Collaborative leadership: Anthony Morrocco

Jun 26, 2022

President of GAI Consultants, an employee-owned planning, engineering, and environmental consulting firm that provides local expertise to worldwide clients.

By Liisa Andreassen

Since 1958, GAI Consultants (Pittsburgh, PA) has transformed ideas into reality. As president, Morrocco leads this employee-owned company that delivers customized engineering, planning, and environmental expertise to energy, transportation, development, government, and industrial clients.

“While we highly value in-person collaboration as it applies to real-time problem solving, our experience during the pandemic has shown that certain aspects of our business can run effectively with remote or hybrid work arrangements,” Morrocco says.

A conversation with Anthony Morrocco.

The Zweig Letter: You joined GAI in 1989 as a project manager. What did you learn in that role that helps you most in your day-to-day responsibilities today?

Anthony Morrocco: I’ve worked in many different facets of the business including land surveying, land development, and project management. Since land development projects generally require more diverse services, I found myself managing projects that included other types of services including geotechnical engineering, transportation engineering, structural engineering, environmental science, etc.

I learned a great deal about all GAI’s technical services and worked with staff from all over the company on a variety of project types. The multidisciplinary projects that I managed were complex and required expert technical and financial skills as well as client management. I served GAI’s diverse client base in the many markets that we serve and became a sales leader in the firm. This set the foundation for my career to proceed in a management direction.

To this very day, I find the foundational knowledge and skill that I gained at GAI in project and business management to be an invaluable tool in my day-to-day responsibilities. I constantly draw on that knowledge to oversee all parts of GAI’s business. 

TZL: Since you’ve been president, what’s one internal change you’ve made that you’re most proud of and why?

AM: Management places a top priority on staff safety and employing safe work practices on projects we participate in. In the years leading up to 2021, it became apparent that GAI’s safety record was going in the wrong direction. We tried several initiatives to rectify the situation, but the problem persisted. In 2021, I came up with the concept of forming the GAI Executive Health & Safety Review Board. The Review Board provides top-level oversight and guidance of our company’s health and safety initiatives. We can measure the success of GAI’s safety focus through our achievement of a 0.45 TRIR in 2021, which is our most favorable rating since 2013.

TZL: How has COVID-19 permanently impacted your firm’s policy on telecommuting?

AM: COVID-19 conditions spurred formalization of a telework policy that had already been in development. In a way, the need to isolate early on showed that we were well equipped to deliver quality work from remote locations – and this led us to adopt three designations under a revised telework policy:

  • Office. Full-time employees work a minimum four days per week at a GAI office location.
  • Hybrid. Full-time employees work a minimum three days on-site at a GAI office location.
  • Remote. Full-time employees work fewer than three days at a GAI office location.

While we highly value in-person collaboration as it applies to real-time problem solving, our experience during the pandemic has shown that certain aspects of our business can run effectively with remote or hybrid work arrangements. This arrangement has and will continue to have a positive effect on our real estate portfolio. When GAI establishes a new office location or renews the lease of one of our existing offices, we reduce our footprint. Real estate leases are costly and having a workable telecommuting policy saves significant dollars.

TZL: Trust is essential. How do you earn the trust of your clients?

AM: More than a decade ago, GAI developed our Client First Program that I currently lead. Our goal is to make customer service our philosophy. GAI’s Client First Program is grounded in the following Six Principles of Trust: attention, quality, accessibility, responsiveness, follow-through, and recovery. As a part of GAI University, I facilitate a quarterly lunch and learn session for junior GAI staff that teaches them about the importance of customer service. I stress the need to develop an internal culture of respect for each other and to provide extraordinary service to our clients every day.

TZL: Your firm has offices in 12 states. What’s your greatest challenge in ensuring that you stay on top of what everyone’s doing? What’s your most valuable asset when it comes to collecting information?

AM: During our annual strategic planning meeting in 2013, we produced the concept of conducting in-person town hall meetings with the local staff of each of our major offices. This initiative was started to improve employee engagement. Among GAI’s many internal communication initiatives, we’ve found that these annual town hall meetings offer prime opportunities to gauge the health of our company and encourage staff engagement. These meetings help us to avoid silos by letting us share important company-wide news, priorities, and developments with employees at each individual GAI location and to directly home in on the concerns that may be unique to a particular group of staff.

Conducted by GAI’s COO and myself, the town halls include live Q&A sessions that allow us to hear what’s important to our employees and let us identify patterns of concern that we can then bring to various GAI leadership committees for attention and/or address in companywide communications and meetings.

TZL: What type of leader do you consider yourself to be?

AM: A collaborative one. 

TZL: What benefits does your firm offer that your people get most excited about?

AM: We offer multiple training and learning opportunities. One learning opportunity that people are very enthusiastic about is our on-site MBA program. Since 2009, GAI has partnered with Point Park University in Pittsburgh to offer the MBA program to our high-potential employees, with GAI paying half of the tuition cost for each participating staff member. We’ve graduated six classes since the program’s inception.

Another particularly important benefit is the latest revision to our paid leave. Last year, we introduced a new maternity, paternity, and adoption paid leave policy that provides two weeks of paid leave for full-time GAI staff to care for a child new to their family. More than 30 employees have already used it. 

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?

AM: Through GAI’s Stay Interview program, we actively check in with employees at designated points in their careers at the company to help make sure that their positions meet their expectations and personal goals. Through individualized, customized interactions like this, we improve retention and build a better workforce from the inside out by gaining the information to implement effective, staff-focused business practices that will benefit all GAI employees at every level of tenure and experience.

TZL: How are you balancing investment in the next generation – which is at an all-time high – with rewards for tenured staff? This has always been a challenge but seems heightened as investments in development have increased.

AM: This year we launched a mentorship program, which pairs volunteer employee participants with veteran GAI staff, supervisors, and leaders. The program’s goal is to support career development and leadership potential while helping cultivate connections, relationships, and cross-organization engagement within the company.

TZL: In one word or phrase, what do you describe as your number one job responsibility?

AM: Optimized business operations.

TZL: Do different states tend to have different needs? What are you doing to provide solutions?

AM: There are unique needs based on location, but we’ve overcome them. Although we have 24 office locations, from a geographic perspective, we prefer to look at our business as having three major regions – Midwest, Northeast, and Florida/Southeast. Also, it should be noted that GAI is not organized geographically; it’s organized nationwide by business units/sectors. This means that each business sector is comprised of staff from all or various GAI locations. The challenge we face year-to-year is balancing hot and cold markets versus hot and cold geographic regions. From a geographic perspective, research shows that currently the Northeast and Midwest are very cold, and Florida/Southeast is very hot. From a market perspective, our research shows the strength of the markets that we are in as:

  • Transportation: Very hot
  • Environmental: Very hot
  • Renewables/clean energy: Very hot
  • Industrial: Hot
  • Land development: Flat
  • Education: Flat
  • Retail: Cold
  • Commercial: Very cold
  • Oil and gas: Very cold

Let’s look at the two extremes.

We offer transportation in all three geographic regions, but our Florida transportation business is overachieving since it’s a hot market in a hot geographic region. Because our transportation business unit/sectors are made up of staff in all our locations, we can balance the workload over the whole company.

On the other hand, most of our oil and gas business is in the Northeast. This is a cold market in a cold geographic region, so it’s easy to understand that we have had to downsize or reassign some of the oil and gas staff. We do mostly environmental service for the oil and gas business, and since environmental is a hot market, we were able to reassign many staff.

Lastly, a flat market – land development. This market is flat in the Midwest and Northeast, but is doing well in the Florida/Southeast region. Once again, we can balance the workload by sharing staff across the company. By conducting research and analyzing it, we can plan where we want to expand our business. This not only includes strategic hires, but mergers and acquisitions as well. Lastly, it’s common for GAI to hire staff in cold geographic regions to build staff that can assist other geographic areas in hot markets. 

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