How Randy Highland put his vision on the fast track to success at McCarthy Building Cos.

Randy Highland

Randy Highland, regional president, McCarthy Building Cos. Inc.

A little over a year ago, Randy Highland came back home.

He had been away from the California division of McCarthy Building Cos. Inc. for nearly eight years, heading the company’s Nevada/Utah division in Las Vegas. In 2011, he accepted an offer to return to the company’s Newport Beach office as the president of the California region. It’s a place where he had served the construction contractor in a variety of roles for 16 years before leaving for Las Vegas in 2004.

But when you leave as a subordinate and return as the man in charge, the perspective changes.

“There is obviously a big challenge getting yourself familiarized with all our people here,” Highland says. “There are a lot of new folks here who weren’t here seven and eight years ago. So, initially, I was taking a lot of time to get acquainted with them, understanding everybody’s strengths and making sure all of the new folks who didn’t know me from my first stint here got an opportunity to meet me and ask whatever questions they might have.”

But it wasn’t as simple as handshakes and introductions. As the regional president, Highland needed to form a vision for the future of McCarthy in California, help form a plan for executing the vision, create buy-in on the plan and see it all through to completion.

“When you step into a role like this, you need a plan, and then the biggest challenge is making sure you are adequately communicating the vision,” Highland says. “I needed to make sure it was communicated accurately and frequently, and that I was getting multiple touches with all of our folks in all the areas where we operate.

“They say you can never overcommunicate, and I think it’s true. You need to take the opportunity to communicate that vision and your strategic direction for the company at all times.”

Form the vision

As the president of a division within a larger organization, Highland is in the position of ensuring that the goals of his region fall in line with the goals of the company at large.

When he took over as the president of McCarthy’s California operations — which generated $950 million in revenue last year — Highland began a period of internal assessment. He wanted to know where the region stood, so he could form the best possible plan for where it needed to go.

“There is obviously a direction for the division and goals and objectives for the division that already exist,” he says. “And there is a strategic vision for the division. So you come in, you assess where everything stands, and you form an adequate time frame for the transition to the new leadership. That is one thing I think we did extremely well.”

Instead of an abrupt switch — picking a day and switching the nameplate on the president’s office door — Highland worked with retiring regional president Carter Chappell over eight months to help smooth the transition process. Highland officially assumed total capacity of the president’s role this past February.

“The last thing you want in a transition like this is for it to have a negative impact on the division’s goals and financial results for the year,” Highland says. “So you want to make sure you don’t take a step backward because you’re spending all your time on the transition while failing to keep your eye on the ball.”

During the first half of the transition, Highland served as something of an apprentice to Chappell, shadowing the outgoing president to begin meeting employees and learning the processes that are employed throughout the region.

Over time, Highland took increasing control of responsibilities and decision-making. During the second half of the transition, Highland effectively served as the president, with Chappell as his adviser.

As Highland assumed more control, he began to fashion a new direction for the region. His vision didn’t differ from Chappell’s vision on a fundamental level, but there were some new areas Highland wanted to explore.

“Certainly, my predecessor had a vision, and for the most part, there is agreement in the overall vision,” he says. “But there are going to be some tweaks on what I see as our vision and where I want us to head as an organization.”

Specifically, Highland wanted to focus his efforts on driving McCarthy’s California region to $1 billion in annual revenue. He also wanted to commit resources to the company’s San Diego-area operations with the goal of becoming the top commercial construction contractor in San Diego.

“It’s a vision that has both short-term and long-term aspects,” he says. “It is important to set the stage of where you see the organization in five years and beyond. You definitely want to spend time thinking about the big-picture objectives surrounding the long-term vision.

“Then, you spend time formulating the short-term strategies that will help you ultimately achieve those longer-term goals. That stuff is a little more tactical, as opposed to strategic.”

Once you have formed a detailed vision for where you want to take your company, the next crucial step is to get everyone in the organization on board with it. You do that through a multifaceted communication strategy that encourages dialogue and feedback.

Create buy-in

Throughout his first year as regional president, Highland has repeatedly stressed the importance of utilizing a communication strategy that offers multiple interaction points between him and his management team and the hundreds of employees who work both at the regional home office and at job sites throughout the state.

The interface opportunities come in a variety of methods and settings, including formal seminars, informal social functions, person-to-person meetings and electronic avenues.

“As far as the big-picture opportunities go, we perform a divisional seminar twice a year,” Highland says. “It’s an update on both the division and the entire company. The seminars are a mechanism for me to set the vision for where we are headed and do so in front of everyone in the region.

“Last October, when I was still in my transitional period, we had one of those seminars, and that is one of the first places where I laid down my vision for the region and set up the goals and objectives for the whole group.

“However, you still need multiple touches, because you can’t expect all of this to happen in one get-together. You need numerous opportunities throughout the year.

“Another thing we’ll do is have quarterly updates within the division. Those are different from the twice-yearly seminars in that they’re constructed as informal social hours. We try to have a little fun with those. It’s kind of like a happy hour where I’ll get everyone in the office here and bring them together, and we’ll just talk about the current division highlights, then take any questions that the group may have.

“Those gatherings are smaller than the seminars, where we can have 400 to 500 people. The smaller groups offer more of an opportunity to take questions and give updates.”

The formal, twice-yearly gatherings allow Highland and his leadership team a chance to roll out large-scale presentations. The smaller, informal gatherings are a chance to inform the staff of smaller-scale tweaks and alterations to the plan, along with any other changes that have come up in the interim. It allows the leadership to drill down on areas that might need a more detailed explanation.

It’s those areas of detail that allow for dialogue between management and employees, which is a critical aspect to his communication strategy because McCarthy is constructed as an employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP, — a company structure that allows employees to have an ownership interest.

With an ESOP structure, employee input becomes necessary regarding the company’s future, since employees are stakeholders.

“There were a couple of questions at the first meeting about what work, exactly, we are going to do within our commercial business unit,” Highland says. “We talked a bit about one market that we are definitely going to chase in that unit, which is the wastewater market. We talked about a few other areas in those markets, including detention and correctional facilities, hospitality and entertainment, and airport work.

“So creating those opportunities for dialoguing is just another way to connect the dots throughout the whole organization, getting everybody to understand what the tactical approaches are going to be for executing on the strategic vision — meaning, what markets we are going to attack.”

In addition to his own personal contact with employees, Highland utilizes communication avenues that don’t require him to be in the room. It’s an important aspect of communication for any CEO or president, particularly if your company covers a large geography. You can’t be everywhere at once, but your message still needs to resonate with all employees at all locations.

Highland uses email blasts to inform the staff of events, new hires and promotions, and various other accomplishments within the division.

But Highland believes a computer screen can’t be the only other face of the company besides his, so he relies heavily on his management team to keep the messages clear and the dialogue moving. He enables his management team and middle managers to communicate the vision, but he also wants feedback to ensure that the message is reaching everyone’s eyes and ears in the form he intended.

That’s why he checks in regularly with many of his managers, asking them what feedback they’re getting from their teams.

“It is important that you take the time to have touches with those people, so that you’re getting a sense at all levels of the company about what the pulse is out there, how people are responding to the direction you are headed, and it gives you another opportunity to see if the communication is getting through.

“You kind of do an ‘end-around.’ You might think you’re communicating well, but it’s always good to go back and see if the message really resonates, if people understand it. Are your midmanagers communicating the message effectively to all members of the organization? It’s kind of a trust-but-verify approach.”

Highland will often ask his managers what types of questions they’re receiving from their teams. It’s often a good barometer for determining whether the message is getting through clearly as it passes through the various levels of the company.

“Just by the questions that folks have, you can get a read on whether the message was communicated accurately,” he says. “You can find out if some folks legitimately have a point or an issue with what we’re doing, if it’s something we need to address.

“My direct reports and the layer under them understand that part of their job is to make sure they take the time and make the effort to take the pulse of the company, find out what folks are saying about the information they’re hearing. That is a key part of communication and making sure everyone is on board with your vision.” <<

How to reach: McCarthy Building Cos. Inc., (949) 851-8383 or

The Highland file

Randy Highland

President, California region

McCarthy Building Cos. Inc.

Born: Lansing, Ill.

Education: Civil engineering degree from Bradley University, Peoria, Ill.

First job: I was a paperboy for a paper called the Village Press. I’ll never forget it, because it wasn’t a subscription paper — it went to everybody. So I had to deliver like 600 papers twice a week on my bike. Obviously, that teaches you that hard work pays off.

It also demonstrates something that I try to teach our younger people: Try to ace everything. Sometimes you’ll be asked to do things you don’t want to do, but even if you’re not passionate about it, it’s a short-term thing, and what is important is that you ace it. If you do that, you’ll be recognized earlier in your career as someone who has the ability to do a lot of different things successfully.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

I have two. One is the importance of communicating the strategic vision to your folks, getting the right people on the bus, give them the support to be successful and then stay out of their way. Another is to take a genuine interest in the development of your people. You are only as good as the folks around you.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

If you don’t have honesty and integrity, people are going to see right through you. You also have to be a good communicator, a solid evaluator of talent and you need to be willing to put the interests of other ahead of your own.

What is your definition of success?

Achieving the goals that you set is my most basic definition of success. But it’s also watching your people grow and develop, and becoming successful themselves – and having a little bit of fun while you’re at it.