Pennoni CEO Dave DeLizza on climbing up the ladder and the importance of mentorship

Pennoni CEO Dave DeLizza is a model for what it means to climb up the ladder at a company. With engineering passion that is rooted deep into his childhood, DeLizza has enjoyed learning each aspect of the engineering business. Ladders spoke with DeLizza about focusing on the big picture as CEO, the importance of mentorship, and leaving the company better than it exists today.

What has surprised you most about the roles of president and CEO since taking over the jobs in July?

“Well, before president and CEO, I was our chief operating officer and that role has now been taken over by Dave Pennoni, but I think the biggest surprise was probably recognizing that I’m going from a day-to-day operations role, and worrying about operations, to an opportunity to be a more strategic thinker and to look at how to grow the company.

I did a little bit of that before, but now I can do it almost full-time in addition to some of the other outside activities I have, but I’m really working on looking at how to grow the company in a profitable way.”

What’s your advice for communicating those firm-wide visions and objectives, and plans?

“We have a strategic plan for the 5 year period from 2017 to 2021. We put our strategic plan, which is 10 simple statements, printed on the mouse pad. It was the idea of one of our strategic planning committee members, so every employee has this strategic plan on their mouse pad on their desk. We thought it was a great way to communicate that.

At the suggestion of one of our senior staff members, we have quarterly Town Hall meetings. What we do with those meetings is we convey to the staff, it’s broadcasted over all our 30 plus offices, we say ‘Hey, here’s how the company’s doing financially.’ Some of our staff make presentations, or senior members might make a project presentation. It’s a half-hour meeting once a quarter, and I think the staff enjoys being kept up to date on how things are going.

For me, I’ve found that the best way to communicate is management by walking around. Here in the Philadelphia office, I walk around all the time talking to some of the staff members, seeing what’s going on with their projects or whatever, and then I also visit some of the other offices.

We have a plan, we call it our Communications Roadmap, and it talks about making regular visits to some of the other offices, again, to meet other staff members and again, convey the culture of the company, and how the firm’s doing. I’m a people person, so for me that one-on-one communication works very well. You can never over-communicate with your employees.

Just when you think you’re communicating enough, you hear, ‘Oh, we don’t hear what’s going on.’ I’ve heard from some other CEOs of companies, who have some other good ideas when some of the things that they’re doing, which I may kind of look at implementing. Today with online, with LinkedIn, with all this stuff that you have available to you, there are so many good opportunities to do that.”

Speaking of the vision for the company, can you talk a little bit about the plan for the rest of 2019 into the new year?

“So, we’re 100% employee-owned. For the rest of the ’19, we’re in our last quarter obviously, which is very busy for us with budgeting and finishing the year up. We want to finish the year strong and see how we compare to our annual business metrics. We benchmark ourselves against other companies, as well as against our own historical data, and to see where we finish up for ’19.

For 2020 and even beyond that, I want to pursue profitable growth, and that’s going to happen through mergers and acquisitions, new initiatives, and again, some organic growth. We have found in the past few years, that organic growth has not been as good as we’d like it to be, but we also have a lot of merger and acquisition opportunities that are coming our way that we can look at. The plan is to finish strong in ’19, 2020 going forward- profitable growth of the company.”

When you became CEO you mentioned that success in this role means leaving a company in a better place that exists today. What have you learned about achieving that goal since you took on this role?

“I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned is it’s not going to be as easy as I thought it might be. You’ve got to start by setting reasonable and achievable goals, and I know that I have the support of our Board of Directors and our senior management team. I mean, these are the same people for the most part that I worked with daily when I was COO, so I know what they’re thinking…I know where we want to go. I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned is that they’re with me, they’re on board, and they’re willing to help.

I want our decisions to be collaborations, not me saying this is what we’re doing, but putting everybody through the thought process, and coming up with these opportunities. For instance, on the merger and acquisition opportunities to talk about, ‘Okay, here’s a firm, what does everybody think?’ Get everybody’s input, and then we’ll make decisions on what our next move should be, and I think that’s always worked well for me. I guess to answer the question, what I’ve learned most is that if you communicate with people what your vision is, then you can get them to buy-in, and it assists with achieving that vision.”

Is mentorship important to the operations at Pennoni?

“This is a very good question. I think the firm was about 50 people when I started. Chuck Pennoni, and other members of our management team at the time, they were our mentors, my mentors. In my mind, it’s our opportunity, and really our duty when you think of it, to pass those things that we learned on to the younger staff members.

I do my best to mentor the people that work with me and try to work with them and help them understand the business side or whatever, and I think you do that through communication. Some mentorships that we have here are formal, others are informal, but I think, in my mind, every conversation that you have with a staff member is an opportunity to mentor them and teach them. ‘Here’s why we do the things we do,’ and that’s the way that Chuck Pennoni treated all of us, and Rick Piccoli and Tony Bartolomeo. I can name a hundred different people here that were mentors to many of us who’ve been here for a long time.”

When you began at Pennoni as a young co-op, did you ever think that you would become the CEO?

“I like this question. I was 19-years-old when I was a co-op. Becoming a CEO was a distant thought at 19. As a co-op, when I think back, my main thing was to learn the profession, get some real-world experience, working in a real engineering firm like Pennoni. a firm with an excellent reputation and some cool projects to work on.

For me, the opportunity to become CEO didn’t become very clear probably until the last couple of years. When I started back in 1976, no way, but when I served several years as the COO, I realized there’s an opportunity to move to the next level, and that’s kind of the way I looked at things. You keep learning. Your responsibilities change, they increase. You can take on new challenges, and I think the people that you work with realize and they notice, and that’s how you get to that next level.”

When you were the COO, is moving to the CEO role something you were thinking about and hoping to do?

“Yeah. I mean, I look at my career. I’ve had a very good one here. I’ve got a few more years left to work, five more years, and I think becoming the CEO is a good capstone on my career. Taking on that role was great. Again, I’ve had great mentors throughout my time here that taught me how the business works and how to operate in those different roles.”

Do you have any advice for climbing up the ladder at a company?

“I give talks to college students. We had the students from Penn State here a few weeks back. I think we broke some new ground. We had 50 co-ops, interns, and we had different companies in the Philadelphia area that they visited with as mentors. I think Pennoni took five students, and then the Aramark took a few, Comcast took a few, but I spoke to the whole group when they first came here. The main thing I told them was, ‘You’re going to get out of a great school with a degree, and whatever your profession may be, but the big thing for me was being a lifelong learner.’

I learned from others. I took continuing education courses. I took training programs. Again, I’ve found mentors in the firm who were willing to teach me.

My advice was to get involved in outside organizations, grow your network, don’t be afraid to take on new challenges, and be passionate about what you do and enjoy your work. If you can do those things, I think you’ll be very successful.”

How would you describe the culture at Pennoni?

“I think one of the things that keeps many of us here, myself included, at Pennoni, is our culture, and it comes from the top, Chuck Pennoni our founder, on down. Our strategic plans statement number 10 says, ‘Continue to invest in our communities,’ and one of the things that we’ve done over the years is we encourage our staff to get involved in outside organizations that could be a charitable organizations, church groups, professional societies, chambers of commerce, all those things, and we support them learning and growing.

Our culture has always been one of giving back to the communities with our time, with our talents, and with our dollars obviously, to support them, and by doing so, also supporting our staff in the growth of their careers as well as their personal and professional growth.

We have people that are involved in Habitat for Humanity, Ronald McDonald House, in addition to the engineering organizations, and some of the other business organizations. Our company culture has always been that way, that we reinvest in our communities, and again, that came from Chuck Pennoni. I remember when I first started here, he was doing those things, and we continued to do it to this day. I think our employees enjoyed the fact that the company supports that.”

What advice would you give to someone interviewing at the company?

“Be on-time, be well-prepared, practice, do some research on the company that you’re interviewing with. Be able to engage the interviewer in a discussion where you can show them how your skills can help the company.

By all means, you’ve got to follow up after the interview. Send a handwritten thank you note, or an email, or a phone call to say, ‘Hey, I appreciate your time you spent with me. Is there anything else you need from me,’ and make sure you keep that communication going. I see so many people that don’t do that. Not just the younger people, but all people that don’t communicate after the interview is over, when to me it’s very important.

You want to know what the interviewer was thinking. Maybe something came up after you left, that they thought they should’ve, asked and there’s an opportunity to ask that question. So, it’s all about being prepared, and knowing the company, and then practicing and being yourself. Don’t worry about trying to overly impress the interviewer. Just get in there and be yourself, and be calm, and then see what happens.”

Is there anything else you want people to know about Pennoni or about yourself?

“No, I think you know my story. I started here as a co-op. I grew up here in Philadelphia, and again, my dad is the person that got me most interested in engineering, and then I saw him working on bridges in Philadelphia, and I really enjoyed seeing things built. That’s what took me into the field of engineering.”

Are you still as passionate about it today?

“Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. My family makes fun of me, because I say I love my job, but I do. I really enjoy coming to work every day. You hear all the clichés…. it’s not like coming to work every day for me, and it’s not. Now I’m in a different role, and able to plan for the future of the company, and that’s what I spend a good bit of my time doing, in addition to representing the company in outside events and with outside organizations.

I am very passionate about engineering. I think it is a great profession. I don’t think when I chose engineering way back when that I ever thought I would be the CEO of a great company like Pennoni, but it worked out. It worked out well.”