As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Bob Clark.
Bob Clark is executive chairman of Clayco, which he founded in 1984. The enterprise ranks among the top builders in North America and in 2019 achieved 3 billion dollars in U.S. revenue. The company focuses on large projects in the corporate and commercial, mission critical, logistics, aviation, manufacturing, healthcare, higher education, life sciences and public-sector markets.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
When we started Clayco, none of us had ever built anything. I literally didn’t know what rebar was or why our guys were sticking it in the concrete. We started in a trailer in a very depressed area in St. Louis and had to have guard dogs to protect our belongings and the building we were renovating for our new workspace. We didn’t have walls or private offices at first and we had yellow lines painted on the floor to delineate our areas, like WKRP in Cincinnati. One day we had an insurance appraiser come by to see the building and I told the guy about the dogs. He thought I was kidding so he went in the building anyway. He asked me if I was going with him, and of course, I said, “No. I’m afraid of big dogs.” He went in and after about 60 seconds he came flying out the door, which I quickly closed. He was really mad at me. It was pretty funny, even at the time.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
The funniest mistakes I made turned out to be blessings. Not knowing how the general contracting business really worked, I operated on a common-sense theme that defied current wisdom. We literally re-wrote the book on how to interact with clients, suppliers, and even our workforce. We were intensely afraid that our workers were going to get hurt because of common industry thinking. We changed that thinking. It’s NEVER OK for someone to get injured while they are doing their job.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Oh my gosh. Many, many people helped me. One thing I learned early was if you call someone and ask for advice or help, they will usually oblige. Ray Pieper (past President of Alberici), and Hal Parmelee (past President of Turner), were very helpful, and my dad was an amazing inspiration. Harold Clark had a 7th-grade education, fought in WWII, and started a small painting company that became very successful. He was a great mentor. He told me to only hire great people, to treat every person the way I wanted to be treated, and to be selective about who I work for. A great strategy that still works today.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
First, it was born out of my passion for architecture, cranes, a fascination with watching buildings being built, and my love for people. When you do something you love, you have a way better chance of being great at it. Also, from day one we were servant leaders that ran an open book company. Being transparent makes life easier. I’m not running the business to become wealthy. I’m running the business to create wealth for every customer who wants to work hard and make a difference.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Honestly and with compassion. Leaders have to demonstrate in a very visible way their true character during a crisis. First, we are typically very informed, get lots of advice, communicate with our network, and gather intel. In the pandemic, we started responding in every way and to everyone we could think of, back in February. When we could still meet, we had all the staff meetings. We told people we had a crash plan that may have to be implemented. We were honest that everyone could be impacted. Our senior leaders worked around the clock to get us prepared. In addition, and this is really important, we did enormous outreach to our greater orbit — our supply chain, our friends and even our competitors — to ask how we could use Clayco’s bandwidth to help a wider audience. We have had a series of virtual calls with the M/WBE community knowing they would be most impacted and that we naturally have resources that could aid them through this difficult time. We need them as much as they need us to be successful. Also, I held almost weekly shareholder calls followed by a personal video sent to all employees so people always knew what we were doing and how we were navigating. This was in contrast to how we know other companies have operated through crises. Look at the recent Garmin fiasco where they alienated almost all of their customers during a technology catastrophe.
Did you ever consider giving up?
Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges?
Our business model is to solve our clients’ most mission-critical problems, so we thrive and gain energy from challenges.
What sustains your drive?
My team. Not letting my team down.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Leading. I’m not being glib. It’s getting your priorities right and outworking everyone else. It’s being first and last and most. Being visible and living your word. During these times there is a great opportunity for failure and risk-taking, and you have to be decisive and right more than you’re wrong. You also have to show a vision and some foresight into potential outcomes. No vision, no path.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale?
I think showing some vulnerability and a sense of humor. My dad was funny even on his deathbed. We laughed and cried, but what I remember most about that day was his sense of humor.
What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team? Again, being visible and transparent. I think also giving the team confidence that we will flat out-work our competitors. Getting some wins when the chips are down is important.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
You have to think of every possible scenario and have a strategy and plan to execute. Back in 2009, we were on the brink in our real estate business. There were days when I did not see a way to possibly survive it. But we still had a plan for emerging and a plan for if we got some breaks. We came out after the recession way stronger than we went in, never missing a bank payment and never giving anything back. Paid off every loan we had even if it took a long time.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
When I think back on 9/11 and the 2008 recession, and when I consider the current pandemic, the CEOs I admire most stand out for their open, honest, and unwavering approach to finding the right thing to do—ethically, financially, and in every other aspect.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times?
- No verbalized or written plan for the short term or long term. No “What if?” strategy that the teams are aware of
- Silence/lack of transparency
- Getting caught, confused or being dishonest
- Separating the rules for executives vs. the various working levels
- Lack of empathy
What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, and even more so during turbulent times.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
In the great recession, we were very straightforward that we expected our Business Leadership to win everything and they would be held accountable if they didn’t. Specifically, I said operation “rolling stone” would be to turn over every rock and every lead, and I better not hear about a deal getting announced in our core markets that we had not at least taken a shot at. We meet often and maintain an incredibly high level of communication during a crisis so we are working on problems without getting in each other’s way. This is when you want your systems to be trouble-free and your forecasting to be perfect.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Inspiring trust
What people need most from a leader during a crisis is trust, believing that the person is transparent and honest and has their best interests at heart. Leaders need to earn this trust through words and actions and should not be afraid to be a bit vulnerable as well. It shows their humanity.
2. Having a well-defined brand and putting it to the test!
True leaders don’t talk in circles or conflate their value. If they define themselves so that there are no doubts about their capabilities and what motivates them, they inspire confidence. If they define their brand with the same clarity, that will do the same.
3. Envisioning the future
Competent leaders present a plan for whatever may happen and show they can be nimble in addressing shortfalls. They develop a viewfinder to the most likely outcome and become the solution.
4. Being consistent when communicating
Effective communication is everything in a crisis. Leaders need to be visible; their message needs to be consistent, and if the situation changes, they need to be quick in announcing it. As part of that, they need to get news and feedback directly from the source, not from reporters or third parties. It pays to “be your own news” and get the positive word out.
5. Frequently reassessing your purpose and your company’s purpose
Crisis calls for our leaders to act on behalf of the greater good, and they also test leaders’ sense of purpose. COVID-19 has prompted many capable leaders to ask themselves: “What makes us distinctive for our customers, for our employees, and for the society in which we operate?”
I personally have been energized by our company’s team members working the problem beyond our walls. Helping smaller, less financially strong companies with a ton of regular business issues where we have strengths. Helping people, who are laid off in various industries by having our recruiting department help them with their resumes and job searches and giving them tips on interviewing, and so forth.
Several benefits accrue from doing this from time to time. Asking this question can:
- Show we care about people in a unique and powerful way to set an example.
- Help you maintain your reputation with customers, competitors, and industry leaders during and after a crisis.
- Improve the safety, health, and well-being of everyone who works for or does business with your company.
- Give you peace of mind as an employer and company — you’ll be ready for any situation that comes your way.
- Increase productivity during and after a crisis. Employees will know their role and function accordingly so there is less downtime and a quicker resolution.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Choice” is the biggest and best word in the English language. When we fully understand the power and consequences, we can be our best and avoid our worst (from my blog “More Later”).
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!