When Mark House is sitting down with new hires, he gives thema one-page leadership philosophy that clearly states his corebeliefs and his expectations. The managing director of the TheBeck Group’s Florida Division views the paper as a contract thatestablishes certain expectations upfront for both himself and theperson being hired.
“It puts a lot out there on the line saying, ‘Here is what you canexpect from me. It’s in writing, and I want you to hold me to itbecause I’m going to hold you to it. This is what I am about and thisis what I expect from you,’” he says.
House has used his open and honest leadership style to move hisway up the ranks of The Beck Group, where he started in 1989 asa senior project manager responsible for integrated services which encompasses architecture, real estate and construction.Now, as head of the Florida Division, he is responsible for morethan 100 employees and about $170 million in 2006 revenue.
While a leader faces many challenges, House says his threebiggest obstacles are finding and retaining the right people, communicating his message, and then making sure everyone in theorganization understands it.
Here’s how House faces those challenges and is taking his division into the future.
Finding the right people
In today’s environment, House says he wants somebody who isvery flexible, open-minded and creative, and someone who doesn’t rely on what he or she did in the past to succeed.
“What we don’t need is to have somebody say, ‘Well, we’vealways done it this way,’ or, ‘I’ve done it back at such-and-such aplace,’ because ... the technology is changing so fast, the construction techniques are changing fast, and the population of our experienced workers is reducing very quickly,” he says. “This baby-boom generation is retiring and the X and Y generations behind itare much smaller populations. So, therefore, we have much lesspeople to do more work with. So, you have to be open-minded, andyou can’t do things like you did in the past.”
In order to find the right person for a management position, asking the right questions can give insight in regards to how somebody will fit in to an organization and how he or she may handlesituations.
“If we are looking for a management-type person, we are goingto start asking questions like, ‘What is your biggest challenge youfound in a management role?’ or, ‘Explain to me how you are goingto deal with a confrontational employee,’” he says.
House and his direct reports will also put together a scenario andask how that person would handle the situation.
They may ask, “You’ve got to build a large retail center and yoursupply of granite tile is coming in and it’s held up in customs. Whatare you going to do? What steps are you going to take? You havean opening date, it’s a drop-dead date, and it doesn’t look like youare going to be able to finish with the materials specified. How areyou going to handle that?”
“Put them in a position where they have to think on their feet,”
House says. “There may not be any right or wrong answer. We arejust looking at how they are going to react and coming up withsome solutions.”
House says he and his team may talk to a potential employeemultiple times but in a number of different ways.
“We bounce people around pretty well, and we tell them rightaway that we have an unconventional hiring technique,” he says.
House tells them, “You are going to talk to three or four people. Itmay go dark for a week. We may not talk to you for a week, but it’s notbecause we don’t want to talk to you. It’s because something else hascome up that we need to jump on it right away because we don’t havea formal hiring person.”
House says having a hiring process that is a little different helpshim find the right person for the job.
“The classic HR way is, you go through somebody’s resume, andyou look at somebody’s resume and check off a bunch of boxes,”he says. “This way, you are being more creative. You’ve got somethings on a resume, but what you are doing is I am looking formore people skills, soft skills, you can’t necessarily see on aresume. In this particular environment, we’ve got to have someleaders out there that have some soft skills, rather than people thatare engineers that just have analytical skills because we have to dosome things a little differently.”
Once House has his direct reports in place, he needs to trustthem, especially with the people they are going to hire.
House says he will generally meet a person being hired by adirect report, but won’t spend too much time with him or her.
“My direct reports, I have to entrust in them, and if I don’t trustthem, then you are not sending a clear message to them that,‘Look, I trust you; I believe you are going to hire the best possibleperson,’” he says. “If I intervene in there, then I don’t need that person. The person that works for me needs to know they have myundying trust and support. The person they’re hiring is going towork for them so they need to have the most influence.”
Though employees will make a mistake, it’s important to continue to trust them. House recalls a situation when a senior-level manager was working on a small project that was easy for the manager. Everyone made the assumption the manager could handle itand didn’t check on the situation. The manager went to Houseeventually, but the problem was bigger than they originallythought. House says it was a valuable lesson for the manager, andthe experience made him a better builder.
House says developing that trust is done through actions andtime, which show that if a mistake is made, it’s not the end of theworld.
“Desperate people do desperate things,” he says. “If you put people in that kind of position to know that there is no room for failure, then they’ll do something that may not be in the best interestof the company or themselves. We want everyone to feel, ‘Hey,things go wrong, let’s figure out what went wrong and how we canprevent it again, and lets react to it so we can make it better asquick as possible.’”
Communicating your vision
Finding the right people is just the starting point. Once you havethem in place, you have to communicate through as many different means as possible to get a message across so that everyone isworking toward common goals.
“You’ve got to communicate very well to your direct reports, yourmanagers and say, ‘Here is the big idea, guys,’ and ask them to pushthat down through their chain,” House says. “Then, what you aredoing is following behind them and hitting different points in thechain and saying, ‘Hey, did you get the word? This is what our ideais.’”
House then follows up with e-mail, which he calls a necessaryevil, to get a point across, though he would much rather use “facemail” by getting out and talking to people face to face.
When talking directly to someone, House likes to ask peoplewhat they think and hear what the message is in their words, buthe tries to approach the person in a natural fashion. He says to dothat, you need to establish from the beginning that you have anopen-door policy and talk to people on a regular basis.
“If I am giving an official communication or asking somebody todo something, I’ll go through their manager , but I don’t hesitate togo to somebody and say, ‘Hey, how are you doing? What is goingon? Tell me about your family,’” he says. “It’s not an unusual thingthat I go talk to people because that is part of my job to continually talk to people.
“It should be part of the normal conversation. I’m talking about,‘How’s your kid doing in baseball?’ to, ‘What do you think aboutwhat we are doing here?’ or, ‘Did you see this the other day on theWeb site?’ or, ‘What do you think about this new policy we’ve gotabout safety?’”
Finally, at every opportunity you have, you need to communicatethe message to make sure everyone is hearing it consistently.
“If it’s a meeting of only 10 people, a staff meeting, or if it’s a meeting where we call our stakeholders meeting, you bring it up again,”he says. “Then we have a monthly electronic newsletter we sendout, and we may put an article in the newsletter. I don’t think youcan undercommunicate.”
House also finds handwritten letters are a great way to communicate, not only to get a point across but as a way of acknowledging good work.
“If you really want to show somebody you care about them, thenwrite a handwritten letter or note to them about how you’re proudof them,” he says. “In a couple of instances, I’ve written people’sparents and said, ‘John’s been doing an outstanding job, we’ve justpromoted him, and I wanted you to know we’re proud of him andyou should be very proud of him.’”
Not only have handwritten letters served as a great communication tool, but it’s also aided in retention at the company, which hasa turnover rate of less than 5 percent, House says.
“Because if you’ve got a good, young, hot employee and they’retempted about going somewhere else, they more likely than notwill talk to their parents and that parent might say, ‘Are you out ofyour mind? These guys care a lot about you. I’ve never had anybody write me a letter other than your third-grade teacher aboutyou and how much they care about you.’”
He also advises not to cause confusion by overloading workerswith too many ideas.
“You got to stick with one or two ideas and go there,” he says. “Ifyou’ve got the Gettysburg Address of all these different things, youdilute what the main idea is.”
But, no matter how hard you try, someone isn’t going to understand the message. You then have to talk to the employee, not toembarrass him or tell him that he’s wrong but to point him in theright direction.
“You say, ‘Here is where we are really thinking about this,’ andkind of try to reset it and reset their mind,” he says. “Then, you goback to the manager and say, actually, you go up as high as you canand say, ‘I think our message is getting twisted a little bit, and let’sresend this message back down and communicate it back downagain.’”
HOW TO REACH: The Beck Group, Florida Division, (813) 282-3900 or www.beckgroup.com