Features

James Commodore – K&A Engineering

Energy firm GC finds perfect work-life balance at K&A

On a sunny afternoon in June, James Commodore was in his backyard in Schenectady, pushing his toddler son on a swing as he detailed why he loves his company’s culture. At K&A Engineering, a White Plains, New York-based engineering firm specializing in electric power, there is a strong emphasis on work-life balance, he explained.

“We try very hard to make sure the human needs of our employees are thought about,” he says. “We recognize that our employees are people, and we have to value that. And by doing that, we’ve garnered a surprising amount of loyalty, from people who at times we don’t even expect loyalty from.”

Commodore never planned to work in the energy sector, but serendipity brought him to the general counsel role at K&A in 2021. After law school, he had planned to pursue criminal law. As he was networking and job-hunting, however, he learned that the husband of his state’s chief public defender worked for a renewable energy developer and was hiring. Through his law school connections, he got an interview.

“We seemed to think similarly on a lot of ways to manage risk,” Commodore recalls of the in-house counsel at Noble Environmental Power. “I think he liked my enthusiasm for doing something different and new. I started there in 2006, and loved the complexity of the things we were doing, but also the technical nature of it. I’ve always enjoyed complicated sciences—I am a computer geek in my free time—so I’ve found all this really enjoyable to work on.”

That job led to others, but none of them offered a culture like the one Commodore ultimately found at K&A. For instance, at a previous job, he worked through his honeymoon in New Zealand, taking phone calls and going online at 4 a.m. daily. And he missed out on his daughter’s early years because he was so consumed by professional responsibilities.

By the time his son was on the way, Commodore knew he wanted better. K&A gave him three weeks’ paid leave upon the birth of his second child.

“It was absolutely wonderful,” Commodore says. “It completely shaped the experience of having a child. It made such a difference in how quickly I bonded with him.”

As he spoke, Commodore’s son was in his father’s arms, sucking his thumb and staring wide-eyed at the world around him.

“It’s such a different dynamic,” the GC says.

Understanding risk

At K&A, Commodore leads risk training sessions for the management and sales team. He got an early introduction to risk management in college, when he worked in a manufacturing plant for a summer. The time spent in an environment fraught with risks shaped his approach today.

“My guidance has always been that any risk can be accepted if you’re okay accepting it, but you can’t do the assessment of that risk and whether what you’re doing is acceptable until you actually take the time to evaluate the consequences,” he says. “To understand the intimate details of the risk, you’ve got to delve into the operations of what’s happening to assess the risk.”

Most of his training, Commodore says, involves making management aware that every little decision about the scope of a project carries with it risk implications for the company, and that has ramifications for planning and contract work. Above all, he coaches his colleagues to factor in the specific processes involved in each job and to be comprehensive in the language they use.

For instance, Commodore has run into situations where K&A has signed a contract with a client for a particular job, and he’s reviewed the contract, proposed changes and gotten it signed. Fast forward six months: The projects team adds two new projects with that client and tries to lump them under the same contract.

“So, I’m training people to pause, stop—before you sign that change order, someone needs to re-review to make sure that we are not creating new issues, risks or exposures by assuming this language still works,” Commodore says. “We agreed to it for job A. Jobs B, C and D are different.”

Revamping HR processes

Commodore has watched K&A grow from just under 75 people in 2019 to nearly 500 employees today. That growth has implications for personnel decision-making, so he has worked to improve human resources processes and educate his colleagues on key changes.

K&A’s HR department collaborated with Commodore to drive new policies and procedures, and implemented regular, required training for managers on those procedures.

For example, Commodore had encountered situations where a manager wanted to boot someone off their team or fire them, but had not documented any disciplinary actions, improvement plans or requests that the employee change their behavior.

“Since we had no record to defend the action, we couldn’t support the decision,” Commodore says of those situations. “[Changing managers’ practices] required a great deal of reflection, training and guidance; also, regrettably, having to inform my management team and make them understand that once you’ve made the decision to fire someone, you have to let them go. You can’t negotiate the terms of their separation before you fire them.”

Finding his way home

A 2003 graduate of Princeton and a 2006 graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Law, Commodore may have found his way into the energy industry by chance, but once he did, he thrived. He attributes that to his grasp of all the moving pieces in the industry.

“I had to have a knack for getting the more complicated aspects of the things you do in the energy industry—and particularly, at the time, in financing power plants from the pro forma financials and operational projections that the banks and investors are looking at, to English, which is what you need to actually make the documents work,” he says.

After serving as a staff attorney at Noble Environmental Power for nearly two years, Commodore became a corporate counsel at BTU Ventures. He then worked as a solo practitioner from 2009 to 2010. He joined CG Americas as a regional general counsel in November 2010, staying there for nearly 10 years. In 2019, he ventured into the public sector, working as a deputy corporation counsel for the City of Schenectady for two years. In June 2021, he took on the GC role at K&A.

“I do love the work-life balance I have right now,” Commodore says. “I’ve had chances to go in other directions—be more important, have a larger team of people, be in much larger companies. But I’d be in an office five days of the week or I’d be traveling.

“Right now, I am in my backyard pushing a 17-month-old baby on a swing,” he adds. “And if I’d gone in those directions, I’d see him maybe an hour a day. I think that’s the biggest value to me.”

View this feature in the Vanguard Fall I 2023 Edition here.

Published on: August 25, 2023

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