Steve Mechler builds long-term relationships at SpawMaxwell Co. Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2010

When CBS aired “Undercover Boss,” disguising executives as front-line employees to experience their companies from the field, Steve Mechler was amazed — and not in a good way.

“It just boggles me to no end that these big bosses of these companies don’t have a clue what their employees are going through or don’t have a clue what their programs even mean to them,” says Mechler, president of SpawMaxwell Co. LLP, a Balfour Beatty company since its acquisition in 2009. “They’re in their ivory tower, and they’re not out there where they need to be — shaking hands, walking projects. … They’re just missing it totally.”

Mechler keeps close relationships at the foundation of the Houston-based construction company, knowing the way he treats employees will translate into how they treat clients, vendors and partners.

“It’s the secret to our success, absolutely,” says Mechler, attributing the company’s expanding portfolio to a history of collaboration with builders and referrals from clients. “We have a very simple philosophy: SpawMaxwell takes care of its employees, the employees take care of our clients, and our clients take care of the SpawMaxwell family. There’s nothing magic about it.”

His staff’s inherent closeness goes back decades. In fact, an old photo hangs in the office depicting the chief financial officer and the previous president, who grew up across the street from each other, building a treehouse as young boys. Many officers of the company attended grade school together; others joined the same fraternity at Texas A&M.

As new employees come into the culture, Mechler has to maintain that family atmosphere to keep the company close-knit and thriving.

“The key to really being successful in any business is to build relationships that last,” he says. “Not just build buildings or build interior spaces, but build relationships with the people you work with.”

Communicate expectations

Mechler’s 123 employees didn’t all grow up together as neighbors, classmates or frat brothers. They come from different backgrounds and values. To keep the company’s culture consistent, the first step is setting the expectations and bringing differences into a single framework.

“First of all, to make up a really good culture, you have to have different temperaments, talents and convictions,” he says, remembering the various characters it took to make a coherent fraternity in college. “You’ve got to help nurture that, and you also have to set expectations: ‘Here’s how we expect you to behave when you’re a SpawMaxwell employee.’”

One way of communicating the values you expect employees to exhibit is by ingraining them into the organization’s core. SpawMaxwell’s mission statement concludes with the line, “People first … success will follow.”

Out of that notion, the company developed a list of values to guide its actions. Those traits — authentic, right thing, respect, invest in people, build relationships that last, applaud each other and do it with enthusiasm — are organized into a memorable acronym, ARRIBA!

Mechler posts those values around the office to keep them constantly visible. But to really make your list resonate with employees, you need to do more than just point at a poster. Make values relevant by demonstrating that they’re pivotal to what happens at the company.

Use values as reference points to explain decisions you’ve made, projects you’re undertaking and other developments in the company. Bid day, for example, is an opportunity for Mechler to offer reminders about the importance of building long-term relationships.

“On bid day, (our vendors) give us better prices than they give our competition because we treat them fairly,” he says. “So all of those ARRIBA! values that we have play into that hugely in how we execute business. We’re here for the long run, not the short term.”

But even beyond that, the value acronym at SpawMaxwell has entered the corporate vocabulary as a catchphrase in itself.

“It’s gotten to the point where it’s such a part of our culture when somebody gets a project or something happens good in their life, instead of saying great job or awesome or fabulous, we’ll say ARRIBA!,” Mechler says. “What it means is, ‘Fabulous job. You did the right thing.’”

Lead by example

Employees from different backgrounds might have converging interpretations of intangible values like integrity and respect. Instead of attempting to communicate definitions of traits that can be hard to define, Mechler relies on action to illustrate what values really mean.

“If I’m respectful as a leader in the company to our employees, people see that. They understand that,” he says. “If I know their first name, if I know something about their families, if I talk to them as an individual, not as a boss and a subordinate, that means a lot. That’s respect. It’s not something that you can say and get; it’s something you have to do.”

You have to consciously build relationships and show respect from your position if you expect employees to follow suit.

“We have to live what we preach,” Mechler says. “So if we preach it and don’t live it, it’s not going to go anywhere. We have to be that stellar example for our employees as a leader in the company. That’s where it starts.”

One way to exhibit that respect is interacting with employees on a personal — rather than strictly business-related — level.

Mechler makes an effort to personally wish employees happy birthday, to write notes inserted in their paychecks, to take each of them out to lunch and to invite rotating trios into his office weekly to share coffee and chat about the company.

“My primary focus day-to-day is taking care of our people,” Mechler says on the company’s website. “Leadership for me means being present, being a good listener and being a servant leader.”

That means meeting employees where they’re at, getting out of your office to walk their projects and interact on their turf.

“You can’t sit in the corner office,” Mechler says. “You’ve got to walk around. You’ve got to visit with people.”

Beyond that, your corporate efforts should be an extension of those personal interactions. In other words, respect employees through company policies as well as one-on-one attention.

If an employee is involved in a certain charity, for example, SpawMaxwell will consider supporting it with donations of time or financial contribution. This shows that the company cares about employees’ personal interests enough to devote corporate resources.

Another way to show organization-sanctioned care is to respect employees’ vacation time.

SpawMaxwell, for example, prepares for heavy vacation seasons like summer and end-of-the-year holidays by pouring in extra resources to cover jobs so employees can take time off.

“We have superintendents, obviously, that need to take vacation,” Mechler says. “Respecting that individual and family time, … we always try to have a reserve of superintendents that are sitting on the bench (so) we can fill those positions on those projects so those guys can take their vacations when they want to take them.

“Therefore, we add money to our

overhead, but we’ve got to live by what we say. We’ve even had several of their project managers and/or several of the officers of the company that have sat in on projects for a day or two because the right person wasn’t there to man that project, just to give that superintendent a break.”

Tackle value breakdowns

Establishing connections with employees is also a built-in way to gauge their adherence to your values.

“If you’re engaged well, you’re going to hear what’s going on, either from other employees, from vendors, from clients,” says Mechler, who maintains several touch points to check whether employees respectfully follow through on promises to clients or enthusiastically cheer on other team members.

Solicit external perspectives to see how employees behave when they’re not under your observation. SpawMaxwell conducts surveys at the end of every project. An employee in its closeout group calls several customers or partners from the project, such as the building owner, architect and construction manager. The last and most revealing questions she asks are, “Would you use us on your next project, and would you recommend us to a peer?”

“If that’s a resounding yes, then we’ve been totally successful,” Mechler says.

With more detailed questions about the project, you can gather feedback about employees on a case-by-case basis.

“Sometimes there’s a disconnect, where we may not get that recommendation or we may find out there is an issue on a project. We can jump on that right away,” Mechler says. “It’s a very good tool for us, because we’re only as good as the last project we did.”

Hopefully, you’ll become aware of issues before hearing input from the outside. If you want employees to bring issues to your attention, build internal touch points into your process.

Every Wednesday morning, project managers and officers at SpawMaxwell’s Houston headquarters hold a Manpower Meeting to catch up on each local project. Offices in Dallas and Austin hold similar sessions on Monday and Tuesday.

You can provide avenues and expect feedback to bubble up, but the biggest challenge is establishing a comfortable zone where employees can open up, especially if they’re bearing bad news of a breakdown in your expectations. That’s where — once again — the relationships you’ve built will provide background.

“When you’re leading a company, it’s hard for somebody to just come in and say, ‘Hey, this is going wrong. I need some help with this, or I need some help with this individual,’” Mechler says. “[You make them comfortable] by visiting with them and by having coffees with them, by being open with them, by celebrating the good times, dealing with the bad times. … You have to, first of all, know the individual well enough where you can really talk to them.”

The reputation you’ve built plays a big part here. The way you’ve reacted to news in the past determines how readily employees come to you with more.

“If you’re going to berate them when they do something wrong all the time, it’s not going to work. Who wants to come see somebody that’s going to yell at them?” says Mechler, comparing the interaction to good parenting. “If you’re going to help them to do things better and be with them and respect them, then they’re going to open up more. Having patience and calmness is a huge part of it.”

But don’t confuse calmness with quietness. When you find out about a value gap in your organization, address it without slack.

“If they’re not living up to the values, then you have to point it out,” he says. “You have to be steadfast about it. You have to say, ‘If you promised it, you need to make it happen no matter what — even if it costs us money.’ So you’ve got to be really diligent about that, and you’ve got to be consistent in how you deal with that. If you sometimes just let them slide and other times don’t, well, that inconsistency sends the wrong message because employees see right through that.”

Tackling mistakes doesn’t mean you step in and take over, though. Make the employee aware of the issue and your expectations, and then back off to let them fix it.

“You can’t always jump in there and solve the problem,” says Mechler, acknowledging it’s a tough tendency to break. “You can’t just (say), ‘Oh, I can make that phone call or here’s what I would do.’ You have to turn it around and say, ‘OK, you brought me this issue. What would you do?’ and then talk through that. Make sure the solution is their solution, not my solution.”

Mechler would rather see an employee make a mistake while trying to solve an issue, then deal with the consequences, than watch them sit idly by. Through that process, the employee will become better prepared to respond correctly in the future.

“It’s hard not to give them the answer … but you’ve got to turn that into a learning experience,” he says. “And the only way to do that is to have the employee deal with it themselves.”

By building relationships as intently as he constructs buildings, Mechler has poised SpawMaxwell for success more far-reaching than the company’s 2009 revenue of $238 million.

“Success is not monetary. My definition of success is the legacy that you leave,” he says. “It’s good if somebody would say, ‘He always cared about me. I was a person to him, not a number. He knew a lot about me. I appreciate all the effort he took in putting people first.’ To me, that’s the success.”

How to reach: SpawMaxwell Co. LLP, (713) 222-0900 or www.spawmaxwell.com