Leadership Lessons from Remodeling Industry’s Best

Some are born leaders. Others have leadership thrust upon them, to borrow a phrase. Whatever your case, there’s always something more to be learned about what makes a good leader. Even the best leaders never stop learning – that’s what makes them great. Leadership can be a nebulous concept.

June 30, 2009

3 common leadership mistakes

4 books every leader should read

Learning from other leaders

Some are born leaders. Others have leadership thrust upon them, to borrow a phrase. Whatever your case, there’s always something more to be learned about what makes a good leader. Even the best leaders never stop learning – that’s what makes them great.

Leadership can be a nebulous concept. What makes a great leader and how someone becomes that great leader isn’t easy to put a finger on, but there are some

common characteristics among the best, as well as similarities in how they became the leaders they are today.

Professional Remodeler talked to leaders in the remodeling industry, as well as leadership experts from outside the industry about the leadership conundrum.

The 5 essentials of leadership

Someone who wants to become an effective leader in their company needs many skills ranging from the personal to business. These are the ones that our experts identified as being particularly significant to those in the remodeling industry.

1. Communication – Probably the most important skill is the ability to be clear and consistent with what you expect from your employees. Without that clear guidance from above, most companies will not succeed.

“You better be able to say things that make sense,” says Ben Crawford, president ofCrawford Renovation in Houston. “You better be able to clearly articulate your positions, your ideas, what you’re trying to accomplish.”

That doesn’t mean you have to be a great orator, says Josh Baker, president of BOWA Builders in McLean, Va. Having the discipline for consistent communication and follow-up is crucial. When starting out, it may be necessary to start by scheduling that communication on a calendar.

“I’d look at it as, 'These are the times, the opportunities; I’m going to have to communicate the message I want.’”

2. Interpersonal skills – Some call it presence, others likeability, but the key thing is that you can interact with your employees on a daily basis, building trust and rapport. If your employees don’t trust you, they won’t follow you, says Jeff Gibson, vice president of consulting at The Table Group, a firm that helps business leaders grow their companies.

3. Fearlessness – Leaders can’t be afraid to take chances, or they won’t make the necessary changes in business. Many times, company owners can be leery of doing that because their own personal wealth is at risk, Gibson says.

“There needs to be an element of fearlessness but not recklessness,” he says. “You’ve got to take risks from time to time.”

That doesn’t mean taking stupid chances. You just can’t be so paralyzed by the fear of failure that you never grow, he says.

4. Delegation – It’s the old “work on your business, not in your business” strategy. A micromanager not only overworks himself, he also has unhappy employees and a company with limited growth opportunities. The best leaders know when it’s OK to not be in charge, says Joy Kilgore, president of Executive Business Approach, a consulting firm that works with several large remodeling companies throughout the country.

“We have to have the right people and let them handle things,” says Gary Marrokal, president of Marrokal Design & Remodeling in Lakeside, Calif. “Leaders oversee — we touch all the areas — but to be successful we’ve got to surround ourselves with people that are sharper than we are.”

5. Decisiveness – A great leader has to be able to make difficult choices, Crawford says. Especially in the current economic climate, a leader has to make tough calls, such as cutting staff.

“We are always looking to cull our bottom 20 percent,” he says. “You can’t be afraid to get rid of the deadweight.”

Nature vs. nurture

One of the biggest debates in the study of leadership is whether leaders are born or made. There are academic studies that weigh in on both sides, and plenty that come down somewhere in the middle.

Neuroscientists and psychologists have even gotten into the game. In a study published in Harvard Business Review last year, Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis write that leaders who display empathy can literally affect their own and their employees’ brain chemistry. In other words, the greatest leaders have brains that are highly developed in the area that deals with social interactions (essentially the other end of the spectrum from those with autism or Asperger’s syndrome), they argued.

Count Crawford among those who believe leadership is innate — and that it’s an ability that less than 1 percent of people have, he says.

“There’s a very small percentage of the population that has the ability to be a leader,” Crawford says. “People will argue that with me, but either you have it or you don’t.”

While Gibson agrees that some people are born with gifts that may predispose them to being a leader, leadership skills can be learned.

“Some people are born to be charismatic, more demonstrable, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be successful as leaders,” he says. “It can be learned, but you have to have an openness and a willingness to take feedback and advice, and some 'natural leaders’ aren’t willing to do that.”

Marrokal believes that while leadership can be learned, it has to also be a passion for a potential leader. If someone doesn’t want to be a leader, you can’t make them one. That’s why some remodelers are happier running either very small companies or working for someone else, even if they have the ability to run their own company, he says.

Learning to lead

Whether or not someone is predisposed to leadership, they’re not going to get there without work. The best leaders are those that have a willingness to learn, Kilgore says.

“I find that it’s the most talented leaders who are trying to improve their leadership skills,” she says. “The least talented are just trying to get through today.”

Even after 40 years in the business, the last 28 as a business owner, Marrokal says he still makes time to learn.

“I think you can never stop learning,” he says. “The educational opportunities out there are outstanding.”

To develop his leadership skills as well as those of his managers, Marrokal attends seminars and frequently brings consultants and other remodelers to his company. He’s also an avid reader and keeps extra copies of many business books on hand (he’s a big fan of “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t” by Jim Collins) so he can share them with other remodelers.

Marrokal has learned a lot over the years from other remodelers, both in formal peer networking groups and informal relationships.

“When you see someone standing out, doing well, go introduce yourself to them,” he says. “Most people like to talk about how they got that successful.”

Crawford says finding good mentors has been a key reason for his success growing Crawford Renovation to Houston’s largest remodeling firm with a projected $18.5 million in 2009 revenue. Crawford started the company only eight years ago after a career in the corporate world, most recently with a GE portfolio company.

“I’ve always been blessed with great mentors, but I’ve also sought out the most powerful people I could latch onto,” he says. “I look for the guys who are great leaders because I want to be able to talk to them peer-to-peer and compare notes.”

Even as a consultant, Gibson says that finding a mentor or other peers to learn from is the best way to become a successful leader.

“It’s by far the most effective,” he says. “(Peer groups) are great assets for leaders to learn about different people’s styles and approaches.”

There’s no single answer that’s going to be effective for every person, Baker says. Even at BOWA Baker and his co-founder, CEO Larry Weinberg, have two different ways of learning, with Weinberg being more of a student — attending seminars and reading books — and Baker spending more time talking to other remodelers.

“Larry and I have different personalities, different skill sets,” Baker says. “I’d like to think that we’re both good leaders.”

However someone chooses to learn, the commitment to being a leader is the most important part of it.

“You have to have that discipline to do it day in and day out,” Crawford says. “You can go to all these self-help things, read books, but if you’re not going to take time to implement it, every day of the year, it’s worthless. You’ve got to commit to it.”

Related Online Content:

Corner Office profile on Gary Marrokal 

Corner Office profile on Ben Crawford

BOWA Builders, 2006 Remodeler of the Year


3 common leadership mistakes

The Table Group consults with organizations large and small in a wide variety of industries. Whether they’re running a small remodeling company or working for AT&T, there are some common mistakes new leaders make, says Jeff Gibson, vice president of consulting.

1. They want to be involved in everything.

“Not only are they doing themselves a disservice because they’re not using their time effectively, they’re doing a disservice to the people they’ve hired to fill that role.”

2. They don’t encourage conflict.

“More often than not, leaders look at conflict as a negative when conflict is what you want on your team. It can get a little uncomfortable, but … that level of discomfort is important to make sure you’re getting the best ideas on the table.”

3. They try to maintain a sense of invulnerability.

“When a leader doesn’t admit when they’re wrong … it actually demonstrates to a team that they shouldn’t make any mistakes, either. In reality, what you want is a team that when they make mistakes, they ask for help.”

4 books every leader should read

We asked our sources for their advice on the best books for an aspiring company leader to read. These four came up more than once:

“Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t” by Jim Collins — How do companies truly excel? In this classic book, Collins and his research team explore how 11 companies made the difficult transition from just good to great and the important role the company’s “Level 5 Leaders” played in that transition.

“High Altitude Leadership: What the World’s Most Forbidding Peaks Teach Us About Success” by Chris Warner and Don Schminke — The authors (both mountain climbers) use scaling the peaks as a metaphor for building a business, focusing on eight psychological mindsets that can paralyze companies.

“The Orange Code: How ING Direct Succeeded by Being a Rebel with a Cause” by Arkadi Kuhlman and Bruce Philp — Kuhlman, the founder of ING Direct, and Philp, the branding consultant who helped him build the company, write about how Kuhlman’s unconventional approach to business helped the online banking company become a global force.

“The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You” by John Maxwell — Maxwell has written more than 30 books on leadership. This one, which has sold more than 1 million copies, focuses on the key “laws” every leader should follow.

Learning from other leaders

Peer networking groups are one of the most cited resources for remodelers who are trying to learn to be a better leader. All of these groups count some of the industry’s great leaders among their current or former members.

Business Networks — Started in the 1980s by former remodeler Les Cunningham, Business Networks offers peer groups and business coaching. www.businessnetworks.com

Remodelers Advantage — Like Business Networks, Remodelers Advantage matches remodelers with similar, non-competing remodelers throughout the country. The company, run by founder Linda Case and President Victoria Downing, also offers various consulting services. www.remodelersadvantage.com

Remodeling 20 Clubs — Available to NAHB members, these groups are another opportunity for peer networking with other remodelers. www.nahb.org

PRIME — Started less than a year ago, this group run by Executive Business Approach has strict membership requirements and includes some of the largest remodeling firms in the country. www.executivebusinessapproach.com

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