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Building rapport Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2008

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

that opinion.

“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

most effective.”

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

should go.

“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

of it.”

Encourage feedback

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

comfortable exchange.”

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

your people.

“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

a script.

“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,”

Bolen says.

“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

in it.

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

or www.mccarthy.com