Mike Bolen always has an opinion. And when you’re someone
who has risen to the role of chairman and CEO of a $2.3 billion
company as Bolen has, your natural inclination is to want to share
“Your first reaction is always to demonstrate that you are the
smartest person in the room or that you’ve got the answer or to
shorten the meeting by saying, ‘I’ve thought about this; this is the
way we’re going,’” Bolen says. “You don’t need other people and
you don’t need meetings if that’s the approach you are going to
take. That’s very much human nature, especially if you’re dragging
around a big ego.”
Bolen has learned to check his ego as the head of McCarthy
Building Cos. Inc., thanks in large part to some strong leaders that
he worked for in the past.
“They weren’t bashful about getting in my face and pointing out
to me that I might learn a little bit more if I keep my mouth shut
and listen to the smart people around me,” Bolen says. “You have
to build it into your philosophy in order for that to really be the
So that’s what Bolen has done. When his board of directors met
recently to discuss how to proceed with what could be the largest
and most risky job in the company’s history, McCarthy kept his
opinions to himself for most of the meeting.
“I’m very careful not to offer up or be led into giving my analysis,” Bolen says. “I was able to get a very broad-based comprehensive analysis from the other eight people in the room and then
added mine at the end. That gave us the broadest playing field with
several significant risk issues that I hadn’t thought of. A couple
ideas might not have hit the table had I started the whole process
by weighing in with how I thought it looked and how I thought it
“At the end of the day, we were able to fold all that together with
my opinions and conclusions and get a nice, surprisingly tidy consensus on how to move forward.”
That leadership style is one of the reasons McCarthy has grown
to one of the top construction firms in the United States, with an
average project value of $25 million and experience in 45 states
across the nation.
Bolen makes it a point to listen to what his 3,000 employees have
to say and factor that into any decision the company has to make.
“You have to be able to effectively communicate downstream to
your people and, maybe more importantly, to effectively hear things
that are coming upstream or sideways at you,” Bolen says. “The
most challenging piece of it is that we’ve been in a very intense
growth mode for a number of years. To be able to effectively grow
and operate a business and have it function at a high level, the
notion of two-way communication is by far the most critical aspect
Just as it’s natural for a leader to want to express his or her opinion as quickly as possible, employees often come into a meeting
expecting to hear their leader making proclamations about what
they need to do.
“It can be a little frustrating for your direct reports, but I try to
make sure I understand their opinion before I give mine,” Bolen
says. “Pay attention to the notion that the first thing you’re doing
is you’re soliciting and listening actively to the opinion of those
around you and then you weigh in later. That makes some folks
uncomfortable. But once they get used to it, they find it very effective.”
It’s all about getting your people to feel comfortable taking a
chance and expressing what they really feel, rather than just telling
you what you want to hear.
“Once they realize it’s not only OK, but that it’s encouraged and the
way it’s designed to work, you get a much more free, open and honest flow of opinion,” he says.
It can take a little while to get to this point if your people aren’t
used to it or if you have new employees who are trying too hard to
impress you with their loyalty.
“Their goal is to mine or try to figure out what I think as quickly
as possible and then adapt their position to that,” Bolen says.
“When they are not able to do that, that can be a little frustrating.
Once they understand how that works, it becomes a much more
To get to that comfort level, your employees need to feel like
they can approach you and give their opinion without fear of retribution. You need to make yourself accessible.
“Try to end up in situations as often as possible that are just like
normal life,” Bolen says. “Do that frequently and at every level of
the organization. Make sure you’re just as accessible down at the
absolute entry level with the newest, youngest and most impressionable folks as you are in the boardroom. Be able and willing to
navigate that and put in the time to do that. That’s how you’re going
to set the culture.”
Bolen says it’s not as hard as you think. You just need to make
the effort to put yourself in situations where you can get to know
“It’s amazing how much they talk,” Bolen says. “You’re going to
have a very specific reputation one way or the other. If you’re walking the talk, people will get that and they will talk about it. The next
time you are in a situation where a young person might or might not
want to walk up and engage you in a conversation, they more likely will because they have heard it’s OK to do.”
McCarthy is a 100 percent employee-owned company. But the core of any open
corporate culture is that people need to
feel valued if they are going to feel comfortable expressing themselves.
“They need to believe they are valued and
they need to believe — and they do — that
they have the freedom to poke their nose in
and learn what’s going on,” Bolen says. “Not
only do they get a chance to weigh in with
their input into a situation, but they can feel
free to go gather information and go figure
out what’s going on in a particular situation.
The culture says not only is that OK to do,
but it’s an imperative. If you are honest and
genuine about it, they figure it out and that
becomes the culture of the company.”
Organize your thoughts
When Bolen listens to his direct reports
and employees express their position on a
given topic, he’s not just sitting at the head
of the table twiddling his thumbs.
“Do everything that you can just as a matter of style to be supportive, be interested
and be interactive,” Bolen says. “Do your
homework. Come to the table informed so
that you’re not totally shocked by everything that happens around you.”
The point is that while you have an open
culture that welcomes feedback, both positive and negative, every organization still
needs a leader who is in charge.
The trick is to strike a balance between
openness and authority in your dialogue
with your people.
“It helps, at least for my style, if you can
inject a little humor into it and use humor
to make your point,” Bolen says.
Whether you use humor or not, you
should always strive to be as direct as possible when you speak to your people.
“It may come across as too direct at
times, but I think on balance, they would
rather have that than to walk away wondering what I was trying to tell them,”
Bolen says. “I try to be as prepared and
direct and funny as I can muster.
“You have to not talk around an issue, talk
directly to it. Keep it short, keep it simple,
and keep it direct — and make it as hard to
misunderstand as possible. Be organized
and know what it is that you are trying to
communicate when you stand up.”
The trick is to avoid making it sound like
“You end up more trying to remember the
exact sequence of words than trying to get an
idea out or make a point and evaluate how
that idea is being received by the audience,”
Bolen says. “It’s listening with your eyes.”
By being more informal, you can more easily engage the people you’re talking to in your
dialogue and reinforce your open culture.
“Try to connect with an individual in the
audience and bring them in,” Bolen says.
“Ask them a question. Use them as an
example of a particular point. ... That gives
you a connection with the audience that
you don’t have if you act as if they are not
in the room.”
Write with feeling
When you have an organization with
thousands of employees spread across the
country or even around the world, your
opportunities for face-to-face meetings will
sometimes be few and far between.
Learning to write effective messages can
make a big difference.
“The trick to effective communication in
writing is to give the illusion that you are
standing there having a conversation,
especially when you are doing internal
communication with your own people,”
“It’s practice, and it has to be your style. It
probably takes three times as long to do
500 words, being careful to weave in
humanity. Try to find as many ways as you
can to weave humor into the idea, unless
it’s just totally uncalled for. But have it
come across so that when people come
away from reading it, they say, ‘I know I
read what he said, but it’s almost as if I had
a conversation with him.’”
The keys to successful written communication are very similar to those for being
effective with the spoken word.
“You organize it around telling them what
you’re going to tell them, tell them and then
tell them what you told them in terms of
what it is you are trying to get done,” Bolen
says. “Overlay that with an ease and friendliness. You can develop a style that is going
to make someone want to read it and pay
attention to it because they enjoy the stuff.”
You also continue to drive home the idea that they are an important part of the
organization and that you value their role
Whether you’re writing or speaking or
even communicating through body language, it has to become part of your leadership philosophy in order for it to be effective.
“Surround yourself with people whose
opinions are going to be valuable and are
going to help mold the ultimate decision
that gets made rather than a bunch of yes-folks,” Bolen says. “Those folks aren’t
going to tolerate an environment where
they are not listened to and they don’t have
a chance to have an impact on the outcome. It becomes a business deal between
you and the kind of people you have
around you. They are going to demand it
and rightly so.”
HOW TO REACH: McCarthy Building Cos. Inc., (314) 968-3300