“The quickest way to success is by learning from others who have been there and done that.”

In this Episode 2 of the Construction Dream Team Podcast, host Sue Dyer interviews Ivar Satero, the director at San Francisco International Airport. Ivar became a director in July of 2016 and is now overseeing a $7 billion dollar construction program. Ivar has also held positions as chief operating officer and as deputy of design and construction for a $3.5 billion dollar Master Plan. He has learned a lot throughout his various tenures and has a lot of lessons to share.

The following show notes are transcribed from the interview that took place between Sue Dyer and Ivar Satero. Please subscribe to our free newsletter to listen to the audio version and stay up-to-date with new episodes releasing every Monday at 4 A.M. PST!

Ivar Satero’s Journey To Becoming Director

Ivar has been with San Francisco International Airport (SFO) for over 24 years, the majority of that time involved with construction. He received work on a $3 billion dollar program in the 1990s to transform the airport. Ivar has worked on projects such as Air Train and the Regional Transit System.

After about 20 years in construction design, he got the job as Chief Operating Officer and has gained experience in a wide array of operational aspects at the SFO airport. Ivar has worked for a director named John Martin throughout his career which has opened up many doors and opportunities. John always thought of himself as a director and a developer, which prepared the airport for the future by putting together great teams even through hard times like the recession of 2007 and after 9/11 in 2001. Ivar also has a similar development background and looks towards the future to foresee continuous growth in preparing the facility. It has been a great journey.

On Airports Struggling With Large Programs

It helps to have a development background or a chief development officer – someone knowledgeable about development. It is important to build a team as a core success factor because it provides autonomous control and ownership over programs and their development/implementation. Anybody involved in team building needs leadership experience in order to maintain the determination to continue and push through, even when the economy changes and dips.

The best time to build things is during an economic downturn. During the Terminal 2 Project in 2007-2012, Ivar and his team were able to buy more capital – 30% more on a $400 million dollar project that otherwise would not have been available. This was a bold move considering the economic realities of the time period. Ivar believes it is critical to work hard to prepare for the future and the future needs of the facility or construction project. It places everything and everyone in a better place when the external variables change. A lot of other airports suspended their capital programs and have spent the last decade catching up and dealing with the rapid growth of air travel that they did not prepare for.

San Francisco International Airport’s Value-Driven Approach

Ivar states that partnering was a big help with the cultivation and implementation of SFO’s values. He and his team focused on developing a strong internal culture during the Terminal 2 Project. They had a 30-month time-frame to get it done, needed to do things differently, and had to keep together a core group of people who were able to prepare for the future.

When talking about what an exceptional project was like in the 90’s, we talked about delivery, budget, and schedule. We did not talk about exceptional outcomes. What makes a project outcome exceptional is that it factors in the stakeholders and other parts of the operation from success on Day 1 of opening to 40 years after opening. A cultural shift was needed for the Terminal 2 Project in order to move in a direction that fostered a partnering culture back in 2010. Collaboration, teamwork, and communication help build trust throughout an organization. We now have a well-defined organizational culture aligned with an extensive partnering program. This allows us to do great projects with exceptional outcomes.

SFO’s Core Values

SFO’s values align well with partnering. We are one team and need values each of us can get behind and act through our work. We treat all stakeholders with respect, communicate fully and openly, strive to be the best, are open to new ideas, committed to making SFO a great place to work, take pride in SFO, and all have the desire to contribute the SFO’s success and legacy.

We talk a lot about success and learn a lot from failures. We have found weaknesses which were liabilities initially that we were able to develop into strengths. SFO is a living organism that faces challenging incidences like the crash five years ago. We had no part in the cause of it but found an opportunity through this unfortunate incident to strengthen our safety operations. This added a core value of safety and security as the highest priority. We make sure our employees believe in our values and that their actions align with them – always reaching towards our number one initiative.

Worst Moments & How They Impacted Core Values

The aforementioned crash was the worst moment in our history, but at that time Ivar Satero was not acting director. As director, within the last 2-and-a-half years there was an incident where a worker lost his leg. This was a cause for action and a defining moment for our team which led to a new program around ground service equipment monitoring and maintenance.

We now have industry leading equipment and operations. The incident intensely refocused everyone’s attention on safety in every conceivable way. A partnership with a service provider stepped forward with a $12 million dollar investment to improve maintenance, staff training, and wages (due to high turnover prior). Our staff feels safer and more secure about all of our airfield operations and are proud of what we’ve accomplished and the role that they play. This incident brought us together and showed us that we are a team who can mutually solve problems rather than point blame and damage relationships. It’s not about punishment, but understanding and collaboration.

SFO’s values play out every day in the work we do.

What steps can project leaders take to create core values?

It all starts with communication; you need to get to know your partners and be transparent. Build trust, have difficult conversations. Work through solutions together, not on your own. Working through issues together builds trust and allows us to use our collective wisdom. A project solution might not be a stakeholder’s solution. Keep the stakeholders by your side during the process of formulating and implementing a solution. Sue Dyer has been a partnering facilitator at SFO which has helped us define aspects of this important process.

Structured Collaborative Partnering

You will not be successful with partnering if leadership does not see the importance of it. Ivar sits in partnering meets and lets his expectations be clear. The presidents and senior VPs are required to be present at these meetings to ensure that the values are acted out within their organizations. Leaders have a duty to bring the right people together under the right values for each project.

From a risk management perspective, the small investment in partnering has been instrumental in our outcomes. There are three levels of partnering: The CEO level, the core team (project management), and stakeholders. The results of partnering are undeniable. On a $7.2 billion dollar program, we are 65% bought-out and have $450 million left in reserves. We have not seen a slip in the schedule and have 0 claims-to-date.

International Partnering Institute

In order for partnering to work, it has to be broadly implemented and appreciated. Everyone can set up their programs for success through partnering; it has a great effect on big and small projects. International Partnering Institute (IPI) allows you to learn this process and starts by helping you understand your team. IPI is right for you no matter what, even when everything is stacked against you. It’s not just about a beautiful or functioning building/structure, it’s about the work put into it and the leadership. IPI is good for owners who want to implement significant projects effectively.

Ivar’s Best Advice Received

“Let your intellect gain supremacy over your emotions.” Move from punishment to partnership. It’s not about being angry because a timeline has slipped, it’s about getting together to do the hard work. Our hotel is a good example. It was 5 months behind schedule 8 months ago but is now opening on schedule.

Recommended Resources for Listeners

Good To Great (affiliate link) by Jim Collins Kindle Audible Hardback

The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People (affiliate link) by Stephen Covey Kindle Audible Hardback

Parting advice

Redefine program success in a different “big ideas” type of way. Look beyond the implementation team alone and get to know stakeholders. Have full engagement, collaboration, and partnership among stakeholders. Involve the community and help make contractors feel like they are a part of something bigger. Redefining success is instrumental in bringing things to a more manageable framework rather than just trying to get through it.

Dream teams don’t just happen, they are built one step at a time. You can’t have your dream until you build your team! We hope you’ll join us next Monday at 4 A.M. PST for another exciting and informative episode of the Construction Dream Team Podcast!

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