Leadership Legacy: Listen. Learn. Lead.

Four AWCI Pinnacle Award winners reveal the action steps necessary to become a great leader.

Mark L. Johnson / September 2015

Do you want to be a great leader? You could read books on leadership, attend development seminars, meet regularly with highly motivated peers.

Or, you could ask our industry’s honored business builders how they inspire others.

“I don’t look at myself in the mirror and say I am a great leader,” says Mark Nabity, president of Grayhawk, LLC, Lexington, Ky., and AWCI’s 2006 Pinnacle Award winner. “I’m not the smartest tool in the shed, but we have had a successful business for 48 years.” (The Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry’s Pinnacle Award is the association’s highest honor, given to members who make large contributions to the industry as well as to their community.)

Pinnacle Award winners serve as our industry’s brain trust. They’re proven problem solvers and motivators. Each is unique. All are helpful to anyone wanting to navigate today’s interesting, though sometimes frustrating, business environment. And what they have to say is simple: Listen, learn and be prepared to be different.

“It’s easy to get sucked into working in the business, but we need to learn how to put ourselves outside the business,” Nabity says. “If the business can’t run itself without our participation, then we have created nothing.”

What does it take to be an effective leader in the 21st century? Four of AWCI’s Pinnace Award winners share key lessons they’ve gleaned about leadership.

1. Discard the myths.
Some say the ability to lead requires charisma and an outgoing personality. But, that’s not what drywall leaders have to say.

“It doesn’t take a special person,” says Steve Watkins of Pivotal Consultants Inc., Boca Raton, Fla. Watkins is the 1995 Pinnacle Award winner. He ran Aetna Construction Inc. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for about 30 years. “What it does take is somebody who listens well, someone who is not quick to reacting emotionally.”

Like playing a game of chess, leadership involves thinking a few moves ahead of your team.

“It takes vision,” says 2010 Pinnacle Award winner Steve Baker, CEO of BakerTriangle, Mesquite, Texas. “It’s about hiring the right people and providing them with opportunities to succeed. Then, get out of the way.”

When you do get out of the way, don’t expect perfection from yourself or others. A true leader is not 100 percent sure of him or herself all of the time.

“If you waited for that to happen, you probably would never get much done,” Watkins says. “You just need to talk openly. Then, make that decision. If it isn’t the right decision, step back, look at it again and adjust.”

A leader has to be flexible.

2. Listen to others.
Building a business requires long hours of self-sacrifice. To succeed in giving the company direction, a leader budgets time to be with his or her people despite everybody’s hectic schedules.

“Take the time to listen to the warehouse guy, to the estimator and to your management team,” says Mike Chambers, president of J&B Acoustical Inc. in Mansfield, Ohio, and the 2009 Pinnacle Award winner. “They’ll have more creative ideas to offer than you.”

It’s important to ask questions. With respect to customers, ask what they need. With respect to employees, give them a platform to talk to you.

When employees offer ideas, give credence to what they say. Make your company’s feedback mechanism and your open-door policy real to them.

“When employees have good ideas, act,” Nabity says. “Just help them understand that you’re all pulling the cart together.”

3. Hire people different from you.
You’ll get more from your business operation if you surround yourself with people who think differently. A team with diverse points of view can find solutions to problems not as readily apparent to teams with a more narrow scope.

“Your way is not the only way, and it’s also not necessarily the best way,” Watkins says. “Keep an open mind. Act like a sponge as you take in new ideas.”

If you’re hiring correctly, then you should have several, perhaps dozens, of future leaders better skilled than you. They could one day break away from your company and become the competition. So, should you worry? No.

“Give them opportunities,” Baker says. “Show them how they could run their own office. Give them an ownership stake.”

As you add to the diversity in your ranks, resist the temptation to overcomplicate company procedures and policies.

“We don’t have a standard operating procedure for everything,” Nabity says. “We don’t have all the policies and structures of a big business. It’s not necessary.”

Instead, take time upfront to recruit people who fit your core values.

“People can be led to a path of excellence,” Baker says. “Some need to be managed closely. Others need pats on the back. Some are motivated by money or recognition. You just need to know which buttons to push.”

4. Help employees to succeed.
You can do much to help people achieve personal and professional growth. Doing so pays dividends, but it might not come naturally to give priority to people than to the bottom line.

“I think out of necessity, in the beginning years, we focused more on the bottom line.” Baker admits. “But we always had the philosophy of taking care of our people.”

Baker talks about some of his 30-year-plus employees who, to this day, still talk about Christmas bonuses they received decades ago. Baker doesn’t feel those bonuses amounted to much at the time, and he wishes he could have done more. Even so, the bonuses worked—BakerTriangle retained these individuals over the years.

“If we focus on our 1,500 employees,” Baker says, “our bottom line will be focused, too.”

“There’s great satisfaction in seeing people grow,” Nabity adds. “And as they grow, they become assets for company growth.”

The corollary is also true.

“If all you are interested in is your bottom line, then in the long run you won’t be successful. People will start looking for opportunities outside of your company,” says Chambers, who began his career working in a warehouse and in the field. “So, train your replacement. Let people make decisions so they can learn—so they can fail, get up and not repeat mistakes.”

5. Create a great culture.
Company culture drives a leader’s style and decision-making. So promote company values, such as integrity, honesty, fairness and commitment to excellence. Such core values become tangible, in a sense, as a leader faces various situations.

“Over the years, some [general] contractors lacked integrity, so we moved on. We were just filtering who we did business with for the first 10 years,” says Baker, who has had command since 1993 of a company his father had started. “After 40 years, we only do business with people like us. We call it ‘PLU’—People Like Us. They pay us when they say they’re going to pay—people like us who are honest and fair.”

Watkins suggests some practical ways to spread your core values.

“Start out with simple things, like company t-shirts,” he says. “Set the tone for how you talk to clients and staff. Show employees that you care about their lives and their families.”

“You have to be concerned with everybody’s welfare,” Chambers says. “If you have staff with kids who are sick, be compassionate. Share your concern and ask what you can do to help.”

Watkins says at Aetna Construction he created a culture that allowed for honest conversation. As he traveled to job sites, he’d often have lunch or dinner with the project managers in order to ask them for their observations.

“The key was to put them in a comfortable environment, away from the day-to-day activity, and have them relaxed,” Watkins says. “I’d just listen, and I’d be extremely careful not to become argumentative.”

A culture of forthrightness can offer a leader invaluable lessons from the field.

6. Request feedback.
How does a leader avoid becoming blind to areas where improvement is needed? The answer is to sit down and talk. Candid feedback can help a leader to make adjustments.

“We’re looking for constant ways to improve,” says Baker, whose company uses SWOT matrices to identify company (and individual) strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. “We ask, ‘What did we do right? What did we do wrong? How can do better?’ Sometimes the feedback can be painful, but I’ve learned to be open to it.”

Grayhawk uses similar feedback forums in a biweekly cycle.

“We discuss ideas, get consensus and establish action-plans,” Nabity says. “Few things other than the core values of the company are cast in stone. I want a team approach versus a dictatorship.”

7. Give back.
You no doubt have many young people in your organization and the opportunity to groom them. How do you go about it?

“We try to spot leaders early,” Baker says. “We’re doing a better job now than we were five years ago and 10 years ago. We’re keeping good leaders longer with the company.”

And the industry as a whole. Can the industry itself be a leader?

“We’ve been committed to AWCI for 30 years, and are taking a lot away,” Nabity says. “I always say that every dollar I invest in AWCI I take away $10 in value.”

Nabity feels that his journey in the industry, playing leadership roles in the association and on its committees, has along with other AWCI participants helped to raise the bar for the entire industry.

“Now that’s what I call leadership,” he says. “If we don’t constantly raise our bar, the rest of the construction world will look down their nose at us. We all have to keep improving.”

Mark L. Johnson is an industry consultant who writes about leadership. He can be reached at @markjohnsoncomm and linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.