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Mike Burrow Featured

7:00pm EDT January 31, 2007

While many CEOs would say that some people are born leaders, Mike Burrow uses his own experience as an example of how leadership can be developed. An engineer at heart, Burrow learned he could derive just as much satisfaction from guiding a company to success as he could from design work. His ability as president and CEO of ENGlobal Corp. to cultivate a team-oriented culture has helped the company and its 2,300 employees get through the challenges of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. The engineering firm generated $233 million in 2005 revenue and $224.2 million in revenue through the third quarter of 2006. Smart Business spoke with Burrow about tailoring your leadership style to your company’s needs.

Be a discerning listener. The biggest thing that I found that I need now that we’re a larger company is the ability to discern the truth from all the input I get. Sometimes the input from one guy would be totally different than it would be from another lady.

Both of them would be passionate about it, and both of them are very intelligent and smart people. How are you going to determine what the correct information is and how do you determine how to act on it?

Over a period of time, you develop discernment. That is a skill that is definitely needed by a CEO to be successful. If he doesn’t have people skills or other things, he needs to recognize that and be honest and not have so much ego that he thinks he can do everything. Hire someone that can make him strong in the weak places. Too much ego can be a real detriment to any CEO. You’ve got to have self-confidence, but ego is a killer.

It’s something that we have to struggle with to make sure that we see ourselves crossing over the line. Hopefully, you have good friends that point it out to you or you recognize it yourself and you back off. If you don’t, it’s really detrimental to your company.

Allow input, good or bad. In having an open-door policy, I actually wrote in the policy that no one would ever be fired for being the messenger. I would never shoot the messenger.

We may not like what you say, but we definitely won’t shoot you. I’ve made sure we abided by that over the years.

After awhile, people see that you really mean it and that you are serious about it. They get a comfort feeling about bringing information to you. The very first time you shoot one of them for telling you the truth, it’s all over with.

If you really want input, you’ve got to do it that way. If you just want your ego stroked, it’s not going to work.

Be a beacon in the storm. You have to really show true leadership in those kinds of situations. If you just say, ‘Who is at fault here?’ or ‘Who caused this?’ and you start finger-pointing, then you’re going to find all your subordinates are going to start to do the same thing.

If you show that you’ve got confidence, they’re going to start showing confidence. The typical response when you have a crisis in a company is that everybody runs for the exits.

You’ve got to stop everybody and say, ‘OK, don’t do that. Nobody is running for the exit. We’re all here together. We’re going to solve the problem together.’

It’s kind of amazing when you do that how quickly people respond to it and feel more confident.

When things start to turn down, buy. If you let the economy sit there and just beat you up, it’s the wrong decision. We try to have it where we are flexible on our cost side. If the market does turn downward, we shed the costs ahead of the curve to try to keep earnings up. I use the downturn as an opportunity for acquisitions.

If I see a downturn, I think, ‘OK, this is a good time to buy someone.’ If you can do that, it tends to dampen out those cycles as far as your revenues and your profit are concerned. I look for the silver lining in every fluctuation and then try to use that as a positive.

It’s kind of a contrarian move, and that’s the reason most people don’t do it.

The reality of it is, if your business revenues are making a downturn, your cash actually flows in. When you’re growing, you get behind on cash. It has the opposite effect when you go the other way.

The cash starts rolling in because all of a sudden you’re collecting all those receivables out there and you’re issuing less receivables and paying less payroll. You actually have more cash in a downturn than you have in an upturn.

If you view it that way from a cash standpoint, it’s a good time to take that cash and use it for something.

Take time to learn. It has to start with desire. If a person does it just for money, a lot of those people don’t end up being good leaders. I put up a CEO peer group that has been real helpful. I wish I had done it 20 years ago. We have a group of six to eight CEOs that meet about every two months.

We compare notes on things and we find out in the course of this that a lot of us have similar problems and similar issues to overcome. It’s been really helpful. It’s kind of like having a mentor, only it’s in a group. If a person that is a younger person can find a good mentor, somebody they really trust and look up to, it’s a great way to go.

Several of us are publicly traded companies, so we have to be really careful about what we share. You can share nonpublic information provided that you have confidentiality agreements and the other people agree to abide by those. We make sure we do that and we keep it totally legal and that removes the fear.

HOW TO REACH: ENGlobal Corp., (281) 878-1000 or www.englobal.com