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Playing to win Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2009

Joe McKee did indeed hold the title of president at Paric Corp., but it wasn’t a role he felt too comfortable with just yet.

“I was somewhat insecure in my position and just hoping people would believe in my leadership and want to stay around,” says McKee, reflecting back to 2001 when he was appointed to lead the construction management firm.

McKee’s confidence didn’t exactly surge when his father and company founder, Paul Joseph McKee Jr., got up and spoke to the employees not too long after he took charge.

One of McKee’s first projects as president was to clearly define the core values that Paric employees were expected to follow in their work. McKee was pretty proud of the efforts of his team, and as it turned out, so was his father. But the words his father used to express how he felt left McKee breaking into a cold sweat.

“‘These are wonderful,” the elder McKee said, speaking to a gathering of the entire company. “If you don’t believe in these values and you’re not willing to dedicate yourself to these values, you can get up and leave now.’”

It wasn’t quite the way the younger and still tentative McKee would have put it. But less than 24 hours later, he saw the wisdom in his father’s words.

“I started thinking about it, and by that night, lying in bed, I realized he was so very right,” McKee says. “You can’t be afraid to say that. It’s no different than when you’re raising your family. You can’t be afraid to say to your kids, ‘Hey, if you’re not going to live by my values or my rules, once you reach a certain age, you’re going to have a choice to make.’”

It drove home the idea for McKee, now Paric’s president and CEO, that you have to follow your convictions and say what’s on your mind if you’re going to be successful in business. It’s what has helped him guide the firm to nearly $300 million in revenue today.

“It really starts with you as the leader of the company,” McKee says. “If you have a set of values and you don’t live them, people know. We talk a lot about core values and we’re not afraid to talk about them. I know a lot of people have them on cards and have them on their walls, but they don’t ever talk about them. We really try hard not to do that.”

McKee knew he needed to engage his employees and speak to his customers about the things he felt the company needed in order to be successful.

“Where people fail is being afraid to lead,” McKee says. “I love sports and what I have found is like most things in life, if you play not to lose, you’ll lose. If you play for the love of what you’re doing and you try to do your best and play with reckless abandon, you’ll do a great job. Too many people in today’s world play not to lose, so they never end up leading.”

Here’s how McKee played to win by being himself and, in the process, developed stronger ties with his customers and his 250 employees to help Paric succeed.

Be curious

If you’re always talking, it’s hard to learn anything new. It’s a lesson that McKee’s grandfather taught him that remains with him to this day.

“You ought to use your ears twice as much as you use your mouth,” McKee says. “It starts there. It starts with listening to your customers first and foremost.”

Get the process rolling by asking questions about how you can serve your customers better and then listen to their response.

“They will tell you if you listen close enough what you are good at and what your strengths and talents are,” McKee says. “If you’re not afraid to ask, they will tell you what you need to work on or how you need to improve as a company because you are always striving to get better. If you take the time to listen and ask questions, you will be amazed at what you can find out.”

When you’re asking for questions to help support your business, you are also showing people that you don’t have all the answers and that you’re open to hearing their feedback on how to do things better.

“If you’re judgmental, you’re not going to get very far,” McKee says. “If you’ve already got the answer, then don’t ask the question. You have to ask genuine questions and be genuinely interested and curious. If you’re not, people know in a heartbeat, and you will not get good feedback. People will become defensive and they won’t truly share.”

McKee recalls a meeting where Paric was looking to obtain a job for a local educational institute.

“I’m generally an intuitive person and I’m constantly learning,” McKee says. “We ended up in the presentation where we were supposed to be talking about Paric, instead, we spent a good part of the day talking about how education should work.”

While it may have seemed like an unrelated tangent, the discussion helped Paric build a valuable relationship with this client.

“If you understand your customers and what they are trying to accomplish, it’s amazing how much you can learn and how much more effective you can be in bringing great service to them,” McKee says. “You can never have too much information.”

You need to live by the same spirit of curiosity with your employees.

“You start with having a real clear vision of where you’re going and what you’re trying to accomplish,” McKee says. “We kind of talk about it as a no-excuses culture. Our view of the world is if there is a challenge, it’s everybody’s challenge to figure it out and we all need to get in the boat and figure out how to solve it.”

By placing the burden to find a solution on the entire group, you avail yourself to more possible answers.

“You have to focus on delivering the best value for that customer,” McKee says. “So it starts with that strong vision about what you’re trying to accomplish. Then you empower the people and give them the freedom.”

Spend time walking around your office and taking an interest in what your employees are doing.

“You might just happen to hear an employee talking about a challenge or a problem,” McKee says. “That just happened the other day. They were working on a challenge on how to build something. I just happened to stick my head in and I gave them a couple good ideas and I watched that team go and they had to figure it out. It was pretty cool to see and that was allowing that interaction to happen.

“I learned a long time ago that where I really got a good education was having my thoughts or beliefs and ideals challenged in the freshman hall or with my friends outside the classroom. That’s where I truly grew as a person. It’s no different with employees and customers. It’s those interactions that add value. What I try to be to my employees and with customers is somebody that brings value to them.”

Build trust

If you want people to buy in to you as their leader, you need to earn their trust. That can sometimes mean different things to different people.

“People tend to think trust today is to make everybody happy,” McKee says. “We preach here that to have trust is to have a mutual level of respect. Trust starts when you can share your true beliefs and say what you truly think. In our world, we call that creative tension. In a good debate, if you have differing opinions and thoughts, that’s a good thing to share because in that, you will find a better solution. In today’s world, we’re so busy trying to make everybody get along that we fail sometimes to really get to true trust where you can have a debate with trust and honesty.”

McKee poses a hypothetical situation in which an individual at the end of a failed project exclaims that he knew that the problem, which doomed the project, would probably happen.

“And you think, ‘Well, why didn’t they say something?’” McKee says. “Because they didn’t trust the group and they didn’t feel comfortable enough to put that out there.”

You can take a long step toward earning trust by admitting your own faults and weaknesses to your people.

“In my organization, I’m 41, and I’ve learned a little bit about myself,” McKee says. “I run really hard, and I will leave people behind. So what my team has, I tell them they have a two-by-four and any time I’m getting ahead of them, they have permission to whack me in the head, and I can slow down and listen. … When you empower people to help you with your weaknesses, it’s amazing how much better you get when they can help you, and then likewise, you start to learn how to help them.”

Obviously, the discussion of a person’s weaknesses works both ways. The goal of offering your expertise and showing your employees that you’re still learning is to convince employees that success is a team effort and that you need everyone bringing their skills to the table.

“When you find a really good team, when they are together, you might have a hard time finding the leader,” McKee says. “In a great team, everybody is doing their part. While there may be one guy that the ultimate decision comes to, they get so good that they never have to get to the ultimate decision. They work so good that you just get there.

“One of my biggest wins as a leader is seeing Paric people do great things without me and watching Paric people grow. When you start to see that happen and you know you gave people an opportunity or created an opportunity and they took it and ran with it, you get that virtuous cycle of people believing in themselves and making great things happen. It reinforces to you as the leader, ‘Hey, I’m on the right track here.’”

What it really comes down to is taking the time to invest in relationships with your people and teaching them to do the same with your customers.

“Take the time to build those relationships,” McKee says. “We talk with our employees about building one-of-a-kind relationships where we get to know our customer in a way that other people don’t. To truly become a partner, that’s where that starts. To be a partner, you have to earn somebody’s trust. That comes from doing a great job, helping them solve a problem and helping that customer grow and be successful at what they are doing. It comes with being invested in that customer’s vision and what they are trying to deliver on.”

How to reach: Paric Corp., (636) 561-9500 or www.paric.com