At the beginning of 2011, I was handling the closeout of a 1 million-sq-ft facility that my company, Southland Industries, turned over earlier in the year. I was also initiating two projects that had been fast tracked to meet a September completion milestone.

While I was busier than I had ever been in my career, my boss stopped by my office one afternoon to brief me on the concept of a new internal leadership development program the company was calling Built to Lead (BTL). A week later, I was on a conference call with five of my colleagues from various U.S. offices who would comprise Southland’s first BTL team.
Each January since then, the program has brought together six participants, who are selected by Southland executives and mentored over the next 10 months to strengthen their leadership abilities and further develop strategic problem-solving skills in our internal talent. At the same time, BTL helps solve a strategic business issue that is urgent and important to Southland and is meant to push us outside of our comfort zones.

The members of my group learned we were not venturing out to a college campus to obtain an MBA. We were not attending an offsite class where we all travelled to a central location and did classroom training over a long week, and then went back to our day jobs. We were not studying new mechanical system designs or analyzing construction law, and there wasn’t a predetermined grading system based on the completeness or correctness of our answer. The central issue presented to the group was not a hypothetical problem that would have no impact on our company.

Our mission was to help our executive group make a decision that would impact the direction of Southland Industries.
We also needed to boost our abilities to handle difficult conversations and to analyze a situation to ask the questions that needed to be asked. BTL tasked us to understand how to deal with different personality types, analyze our own strengths and weaknesses, and raise our emotional intelligence as a group.

These were the grey areas of our business that are typically only developed through happenstance or experience. This was especially important considering the type of people employed at Southland Industries.
As a leading MEP building systems firm, many employees are engineers who excel at independent problem solving. The majority prefer to work within the structures of known numbers and known entities; solutions that are black and white.

But the company recognized that maintaining its quality edge while supporting overall growth required leaders who are both technically savvy—but also understand the degrees of managing a collective and empowering individual team members to contribute his or her talents to bear on a problem.
Up to that point, I was leery of whether I could wrap up my projects and work concurrently through BTL. But I began to let go of some project details—almost forcibly at times—and to trust everyone working on my various teams.

As a team lead, this personal transformation enabled the people working around me to further develop themselves. Combine this with the improvements to time management learned throughout the sessions, and I ultimately overcame the challenge.
In terms of what the company has gained from this investment, it’s also not black and white. Undoubtedly, all participants up to this point have been stretched, challenged and have grown and developed as leaders. Our team’s central problem was to determine if Southland Industries should enter into a new market that would require a long term financial and people commitment.

We met as a group multiple times over the 10 months and methodically developed the framework for our response to the problem. We talked with various key stakeholders, outside and inside the company, to determine the feasibility of our plan. We worked through the financial analysis required for a decision of this magnitude.

Lastly, we provided a suggested change to each division’s organizational chart to make our plan possible. We covered all three sections—market, financial, and required organizational change—and presented to the board of directors and division leaders in October of that year. As intended, this stirred a healthy debate on the path forward but ultimately led to the decision to move into that key market.
I know firsthand how the BTL program bridges the path we want Southland to take with that envisioned for employees. The experience has shown me the rewards of stepping outside my comfort zone. It has been well worth the risks.
Matt Bruening is the operations manager for the Mid-Atlantic division of Southland Industries, which ranks at No. 28 on ENR's list of The Top 600 Specialty Contractors. He can be reached at