Kathleen Shanahan is pretty clear with her answer when she is asked what has been her greatest leadership challenge.
The chair of the board and CEO of WRScompass says being chief of staff to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush from 2001 to 2003 definitely fits the bill.
“It’s crisis management every day,” says Shanahan who now leads the environmental, geotechnical and civil construction company.
Yet, the hectic days and moments of trying to minimize disasters aren’t all that Shanahan recalls.
It was the leadership of Bush that actually attracted her to the position in the first place.
“He was the best at delegating as well as following up,” she says.
Bush was also very good at welcoming different opinions and listening to ideas around him to make the best decision or find the best solution for a problem.
“We had an environment where there were very healthy conversations about policy and why and what we were going to try to do,” she says.
Shanahan has taken those lessons and used them to help guide WRScompass from $65 million in revenue in 2005 to more than $180 million in 2008.
Here’s how Shanahan utilizes her management team, delegates and creates a vision to lead WRScompass in the right direction.Utilize your management team
Selecting the right senior team members is the most important decision a leader makes. Shanahan surrounded herself with a senior team that has been in the industry 20 years, while she has only been in it four years. While she has experience around her, she also wants a team of people who respects each other, shows professionalism and has integrity, which means staff members who speak their minds and who also have the skills to do their jobs.
“A key part of the reason that we’ve worked together is that I really respect what they do, and they do it very well and they respect what I’ve done for the company,” she says.
Shanahan recommends the book “Team of Rivals,” about Lincoln’s Cabinet for some good advice to form a team, but she also has some of her own.
“You do not need yes-people,” she says. “It is valuable to have people around you who respectfully disagree with you and explain why. It is important for the leader to listen and learn.”
You have to create a feedback loop to hear the information and learn from it.
“A feedback loop is very important, because it can’t be just you with your ideas pontificating,” she says. “You’ve got to create a way that they feel that they can disagree or that there is a free exchange and that a group makes a decision, which is best for the company as you go forward.”
Feedback loops are created by getting back to people and closing the loop on all communications e-mails, letters or offers to help.
“It’s important to listen and respond follow up on tasks and getting back to people with feedback and direction,” she says. “People feel relevant when they are listened to.”
The more relevant your management team feels, the better the atmosphere will be around you and the team when you have discussions.
“A key part of leadership is making sure that environment is there and viable and that people feel free to express their true opinions, i.e., to disagree,” she says.
That open environment won’t develop under a leader who is constantly shooting ideas down or criticizing when a dissenting opinion is brought to the table.
“You can’t judge them when they disagree with you,” she says.
You need to be open to new ideas and let everyone on the senior team know you want to hear what is on their mind.
“Being open and transparent with the senior team helps ensure everyone is pursuing a consistent strategy,” she says. “Including everyone in the same communication loop is also a more efficient form of communication, as it drives a clear path for all members toward our goal.
“Communications efficiency also drives greater productivity, which positively impacts the bottom line.”Delegate
Not everyone who works in your company wants to punch a clock and go home. There are employees working around you who want to help your company and take on more responsibility.
If you aren’t challenging them by delegating responsibility and empowering them to make decisions, you run the risk of boring them and losing them to someone who will.
“You give them the opportunity to be responsible for what their job is in the company, and you give them the support that they know that they’re not in it by themselves,” she says.
You want to express to the people whom you are delegating to that you trust them, much like you would with your management team.
However, while employees want more responsibility, they don’t want to be thrown on an island with no tools or resources to get back to the mainland. You have to monitor what you’ve delegated and find out if they need a hand.
“It’s about asking them in a prodding way or reminding them in a prodding way that you are interested and you’re there to be helpful,” she says.
Shanahan isn’t looking for information merely to judge it. In fact, all she wants is for the person to keep her in the loop. When she asks about something, she keeps it in a file and every other Sunday goes through it. If something isn’t answered, she is reminded to check back in with the involved parties. If the employee isn’t coming to you with information, you have to seek that person out to close that file in your head.
“Until somebody comes back and says either A, B or C ‘We’re pursuing, it’s on hold, or it’s just not for us’ it stays open,” she says. “I’m always like, ‘Just close the box in my head. I don’t care. I’m not going to go back and second-guess whatever your decision is about whether it’s a potential client or the right process on a project site.’”
When following up, don’t assume that the person isn’t doing his or her job, and that’s why he or she hasn’t gotten back to you.
“I always approach it like, ‘I’m sure it’s resolved, and I’m sure you just need to tell me so I can close the file in my head,’” she says. “Nine times out of 10 it is they’ve taken care of it, they sent whatever they needed to or they decided they’re not going to pursue the job. I don’t micromanage their final recommendation because they are the professionals. I just want to know that it was closed.”
Don’t feel like you are micromanaging employees by checking in every once in a while. As long as you aren’t on their backs every hour, employees will understand you need to stay informed.
“Micromanaging would be every day sending people, basically, tasks that they need to get done,” she says.
To avoid that, just follow up on conversations or team meetings once a month or every other week and ask about the status of the project so you can stay informed.
When you delegate something, you can’t be so closed-minded to think there is only one way to a solution. There are many different ways to solve a problem, even if you don’t agree with all of them.
“It’s not about how you get there,” she says. “They can tell me there can be 10 different paths to get to the solution or to get to their recommendatio n. You don’t have to micromanage their process, you just need to ask a question and then get a response.”
That simple process of delegating to employees, and then following up, will go a long way in empowering them.
“It allows the individual to be responsible and to be empowered, but they can only be empowered and responsible if they are held accountable,” she says. “So, it’s sort of like the yin and the yang. Some people rise to the occasion and some people need to be prodded.”Rely on your vision
If you don’t have a vision, you are going to have a hard time being successful.
“I think it helps make it clear what the goals of the company are to the employees, to the customers, to our competitors, to anybody that’s on our team,” Shanahan says. “I think that all of that is important.”
While you may have all sorts of ideas about what you think your company’s vision should be, you can’t be the only one creating that message.
“You have to have involvement from the employees so they feel like they’ve participated,” she says. “It’s really goal establishment. Vision is ‘Where do we see ourselves in the next three years?’ We’ve done that now twice with WRScompass, and I think it really comes from the organization.
“Then you establish strategic initiatives and then you work on getting those done as well as doing your regular job.”
Shanahan found it effective to put employees in workgroups to get input.
Three quarters of employees in the company were involved in a strategic plan outline and discussion group. Their time was used to focus on a specific task or item, but their feedback, suggestions and results made an impact on the WRScompass strategic plan.
“When using a lot of employees, it’s important to manage their time and be very directional especially if you are taking them off other projects that bring in revenue and margin directly,” she says.
While putting employees in workgroups will foster a lot of feedback, you also have to do your part in creating an environment where employees will feel comfortable giving their two cents.
“It’s always a challenge because they are going to respect the CEO or the senior team, but you’ve got to be real,” she says.
“You’ve got to establish platforms of interchange. Whether it’s e-mail or you go to project visits and you go talk to them and sit down and have lunch. You can’t sit in your office. You have to be out and about.”
If you have employees in different locations, you should try to visit with them regularly. Shanahan tries to visit three to five project sites a month.
When out there, you have to talk to them about what matters to them, such as their families, what they do in their free time and why they matter to the company.
“You show up and go walk around with the engineer or the project manager or the superintendent or the supervisor and ride around in their truck with your work boots on,” she says. “You’re going to hear a lot. You’ve got to be out there with your employees where they work.”
That will come back around when you need input for processes like creating a vision, especially when you have to share bad news.
“You’ve got to be authentic,” she says. “A message is a message. It’s not like you’re spinning a press person to try to get them to write a better story. Your employees are your allies. They are the people that get it done. They don’t need to be spun.”
How to reach: WRScompass, (813) 684-4400 or www.wrscompass.com