Ryan Maibach had a solid background when he stepped into the president’s role at construction firm Barton Malow Co. A construction engineering graduate of Purdue University, he had been working at the firm in various capacities since 1997, most recently as operations vice president for the company’s industrial group.
One of several Maibach family members on Barton Malow’s leadership team, he had worked alongside his father, chairman and CEO Ben Maibach III, preparing for a larger role within the company.
Maibach was about as prepared as any person could have been to take over as president. But when the promotion came in April 2011, he still found himself challenged to take a $1.3 billion company, with a nationwide presence of 1,500 employees all trying to navigate a still-sluggish economy, and get it ready for future growth.
“Early on, I was just trying to understand what all is in play, especially coming into the position at a pretty challenging time for our industry,” Maibach says. “The biggest challenge was trying to figure out how we best cope with a lot of economic and industry realities, and how we continue to grow and thrive despite some of those.”
Maibach quickly isolated his single biggest need as a new leader: he had to connect with the people at Barton Malow, regardless of what job they performed or where they were stationed within the company’s footprint. He had to engage them in dialogue, solicit feedback on the vision, values and policies of the leadership team and use the employee input to define future goals for the company, both over the short term and long term.
“It was a lot of asking questions, and more often than not, asking open-ended questions,” Maibach says. “When you leave things open-ended, people are going to take the conversation where they want it to go. More often than not, it’s what you need to hear, though not always what you want to hear.”
As operations vice president for the industrial segment, Maibach had overseen one of Barton Malow’s five business units. Along with the heads of the four other business units, Maibach had served on the company’s board, interacting and developing relationships with his peers on staff. Maibach says that fact did help him in his transition to the president’s role.
“The process was a little easier because there is a good degree of interaction with your peers,” Maibach says. “It’s not as though I was coming into a situation that I was completely unfamiliar with.”
Like any new leader has to, Maibach used the advantages he had to help smooth the transition, both for himself and the rest of the company. With a degree of stability already established with the management level, Maibach leveraged it to reach out to people at all levels and locations within the company, attempting to build relationships and a sense of familiarity, and rally people around his vision for the future.
“It might sound cliché, but I think the success and failure of a company is directly related to how effective our people are,” he says. “It’s in direct proportion to how solid our people are, how effective and informed they are as employees. So, in the time I’ve been in this position, it has been about trying to reach out and engage a broader segment of our employees, the people that I hadn’t had as much of a chance to interact with one-on-one in my previous position.”
There wasn’t any magic to it. Maibach got on a plane and logged thousands of air miles, travelling to Barton Malow locations and job sites from coast to coast, as far south as Florida and as far north as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
“I wanted to reach out, talk to them and understand their view of the company, their role in it and what they see,” Maibach says. “What are their challenges and obstacles, and how best to start working down that list, and getting everyone aligned on the company’s goals and objectives.”
Maibach wanted to provide positive reinforcement for his people, but as he traveled the country during his first months on the job, his people provided him with a great deal of positive reinforcement, too. Maibach discovered that he had a work force with a desire to perform at a high level, people who believed in the company and wanted to continue driving it toward success.
“You hear a lot of the loyalty and passion that people feel for the company,” Maibach says. “You see a lot of the appreciation that people have for certain values, namely the integrity of the company and the associated trust that a lot of individuals have in the company. You also hear from a lot of people the desire to be a part of something big, to be a part of the bigger picture. That, as a leader, is what drives you to provide more opportunities for people to be engaged and be a part of something more than their particular project or their particular role in the company.
“That is really the desire as we look out into a new era. How do we provide opportunities for some really great people to play a role in charting a course and setting a direction for what they are going to experience in the future?”
All of the time Maibach spent travelling as the new president amounted to a good first step in establishing rapport with employees and focusing them on the company future goals. But if it had ended there, that’s all it would have ever been — a good first step, a nice initial gesture, and little else.
For your actions to have any meaningful impact over the long haul, they need reinforcement. You reinforce by continually encouraging the behavior you preached, and hopefully demonstrated, in the first place.
In Maibach’s case, he sowed seeds of engagement. Now, when engaged employees come forward with ideas and input on the company’s future direction, Maibach needs to take the ideas seriously and offer constructive feedback — whether the company can use the idea or not.
“I got an e-mail from a young project engineer who I helped to recruit,” Maibach says. “He thought he had this terrific lead for new business, but it was in a location that is not so much a target for us. He sent us a 12-paragraph e-mail on why this was such an awesome idea, so it was obvious that he really believed in it and believe it was a good idea for the company. In that situation, it would have been very unfortunate if the response he received was ‘No, you are wrong.’ It takes a bit more time, but I firmly believe that every individual in the company has a right to as ‘Why?’ in any circumstance. If the idea that they submitted doesn’t make sense for us, part of your response as a leader has to tell them why it doesn’t make sense.”
Responding to feedback in an open, truthful fashion is an example of actions following words. If you preach about your company’s open culture, and how employees’ opinions are valued, you have to demonstrate it. By demonstrating your words through your deeds, you build an increased level of trust with your work force.
As an incoming executive, developing trust was one of the most critical tasks Maibach had to accomplish. If employees receive any whiff of what they think is hypocrisy or an aloof attitude from the members of upper management, your culture will suffer and the flow of ideas can slow to a trickle, or stop outright, which can damage your company’s ability to innovate and adapt in a fast-changing business climate.
“Trust is imperative,” Maibach says. “I can’t imagine not having a barometer for doing the things you say you are going to do. I can’t imagine intentionally looking to mislead. I will readily admit that I’m far from perfect, and I don’t think anyone in the organization would disagree, but if there is any erosion in the trust factor around here, it is not due to lack of trying. There are so many proverbs and idioms out there about doing what you say you’re going to do, and the golden rule of doing to others as you would have them do to you. But really, it is as simple as that. And if you can’t do something, explain why.
“You can’t fake concern or compassion. You either genuinely feel it or you don’t. If you genuinely do, people pick up on that and it helps to build trust. People will then feel like you are looking out for their best interest, and they are going to be a lot more game to engage you.”
Many over-the-counter medicines have an active ingredient. It makes the headache medicine cure your headache; it makes the cough syrup quiet your cough. When developing a culture that values employee ideas and feedback, and encourages open dialogue throughout all levels of the organization, the active ingredient is a set of well-defined and compelling goals for the company.
The goals should have their roots what you believe in as a leader, and the values you want everyone in your organization to embrace.
“The purpose, firmly, is that everyone should understand why we’re here, what we’re all about, what is it we want to look to try and accomplish,” Maibach says. “Then, you want to have that resonate throughout the company. It’s centered on your values. What is it that you truly believe in, and how have you acted and functioned over the past several years? It’s not just aspirational values, but what is it that you truly and genuinely hold dear?”
Translating values into goals means turning them into actionable items that are aimed at the achievement of a definite outcome.
“The values have to translate into specific actions,” Maibach says. “How we expect people to engage certain situations, and how to act and behave in those situations. You can talk about broad concepts, like integrity, but what does that really mean. You need to get more specific on that. It’s important to be credible and do what you say, and act in a manner that is consistent with what you preach. To do that, you have to be able to take what you believe and where you want to go as an organization, and put it down on paper.”
Everything Maibach has done in his first year on the job as president of Barton Malow has really boiled down to one word: presence. He developed a presence with his employees, maintained that presence with an ongoing dialogue, and ensured that his presence was tied to the messages he continued to communicate, focusing employees on the values and goals of the company, both now and moving forward.
“Face-to-face presence is certainly the best, but the reality is that when you are as spread out as we are, you simply can’t be physically present everywhere. So you continually communicate, even if it’s just a quick call or note, and hopefully that presence is felt. You’re trying to dive deeper into the organization and understand the things that are in play for everyone. It’s not just presence for the sake of presence. It’s trying to convey the care and concern for individuals, and for their well-being.”
How to reach: Barton Malow Co., (248) 436-5000 or www.bartonmalow.com
The Maibach file
Education: B.S. in construction engineering, Purdue University
What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?
I had the opportunity to work for a really fantastic superintendent, and he taught me that in order to have an understanding of your role as a leader, you have to develop an empathy and understanding, to some degree, of the people who work for you. So he used to send me out to set blocks or rake concrete or lay tile. It was really a fantastic experience. It helped me to understand and have a tremendous appreciation for everything that goes on at a construction site, and what it takes to execute the work that clients are hiring us to do.
What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?
Any leader is going to have to have the ability to set a direction, then to get people to rally around that direction, and encourage others along the way. You have to manage the resources that you have, play the hand you are dealt. And anyone in a leadership position is going to have to be able to articulate a vision.
What is your definition of success?
There are different buckets of success. Individually, it’s accomplishing goals and objectives related to the vision for what we are trying to accomplish. For the company overall, it’s to have every person understand their purpose, realize what they are trying to accomplish and what they hope to achieve. Success in an organization is really when you can take all of those things and align them on a common purpose and vision, and structure it in a manner where success for the organization and for the individual are one and the same.