Integrity is more than just a business buzzword to Evans Nwankwo. It is an essential pillar of his business philosophy that has allowed him to grow Megen Construction Co. from a start-up nearly 15 years ago to a growing $41 million company today. Nwankwo, a native of Nigeria who emigrated to the U.S. to attend college, founded Megen in 1993 after more than 10 years in the construction business. His journey from international college student to president and CEO of his own company has shown Nwankwo the importance of integrity and a straightforward approach when leading people. Smart Business spoke with Nwankwo about the importance of integrity, vulnerability, and other traits and skills of effective leaders.
Set a good example. Integrity is something you cannot preach. There is a saying that, ‘What you’re doing speaks so loud I can’t hear what you’re saying.’
It comes down really to demonstrating that type of character. That, to me, means communicating, not just through e-mail but through speaking in person. Most of the time, if people see decisions made with integrity and see it across the company, they’ll see that you stood by your company’s values and think things through before making a decision.
Show that you’re human. Trust is not something that develops overnight. Trust is something that comes with time.
My direct reports see me be the same person year after year. A larger part of a successful business relationship is constantly being who you are and not changing. That’s how you build that trust.
I also am not afraid to show that I don’t have all the answers. I try to be vulnerable with that so somebody sees that I am not invincible and that I don’t have all the answers.
It does more for my direct reports than for me. If a leader puts himself up on a pedestal, it seems like he is way up there and untouchable. But with vulnerability, people start to see that, ‘Hey, this guy is just like me, someone who needs to take a break every now and then, or someone who needs to leave early to take his kids to soccer practice. He’s human.’ Having a level of vulnerability as a leader allows people to realize that I am just like them.
Maintain your culture. Promoting the culture can be very difficult to put into practice all the time. It’s like saying you’re going to be able to go out there and lose 25 to 30 pounds. That’s not really the hard part. The more difficult part is to keep weight off.
This culture is our DNA. With our people, it has to be a constant. So I have to promote the same culture to everyone, and that’s reflected in the way we do things on a daily basis. That’s the most important way to keep a culture long term.
You need to be very careful when it comes to hiring the people that will carry on the culture. You might have heard the saying that, ‘You have to hire slowly and fire quickly.’ I try to take a great deal of time to hire, but that hasn’t always been the case.
A project pops up, and sometimes we picked the first person who came through the door. Usually, we spend a great deal of time over the course of several interviews to really get to know someone and check out references.
Communicate face to face. Building a detailed communication culture is great, but the better way to communicate is through example. The things that you want to see in others, you need to show the same character yourself.
It takes more than words to communicate. Having said that, there are some fundamental ways to communicate. Here, we have what we call ‘Megen University,’ where we teach and communicate the technical aspects of what we do. We communicate our culture and share examples from experiences we’ve had on different projects, how we handled a situation, how we learned by example.
Making time for communication depends on the size of the company. As you grow, it becomes more difficult to touch everyone in the company on a daily basis. Now that our company is a fairly large size, it is difficult for me as a leader to touch everyone.
I try to counteract that by making sure that my executives get in touch with everyone constantly, so that the cultural pipeline stays constant and that is communicated all the way through the company. However, I do still walk around as much as I can. It is very critical, and it’s how you stay close to the ground level.
If you don’t have time, make time. There is no secret to making time for one-to-one communication. Many people make time for what they think is important.
Because I believe it is the best form of communication and of great importance, I place it high on the priority scale. I work with my assistant to schedule meetings many months ahead over the span of a year.
And during the meetings, it’s a very relaxed environment. We try not to make it very formal. I want to make it informal in a sense so I can learn about my employees’ personal lives. If they are comfortable enough that they are able to share with me what is happening outside of work, it helps me to be able to relate to them and better manage them.
Different people have different ways that they respond to communication, but oneto-one is the most effective. That’s why I have one-to-one meetings with every person who reports directly to me. You want a communication situation where you are able to get feedback.
When I am across the table from an individual, face to face, I can get a sense of all aspects of communication, be that the voice tone, the body language, in a sense, feeling the heartbeat of what is going on with my colleagues. To have one-to-one relationships, one-to-one meetings, has been important for us. I’ve seen how good it has been at creating dialogue.
HOW TO REACH: Megen Construction Co., (513) 742-9191 or www.megenconstruction.com