The Best New Thinking On Leverage And Leadership

Shannon Waller
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Kent Pilcher is a Strategic Coach client, one of my good friends, and a strategic thinking partner I love collaborating with on team leadership strategies. He’s taken leadership—one of our main areas of focus in The Strategic Coach Program—to such an extraordinary level of success that I’m excited to share this excerpt from my conversation with him for my Team Success podcast.

Kent has come to see that his company, Estes Construction, has developed far beyond a successful construction company to become a leadership development company as a result of their focus on developing every person on their team to grow and excel as leaders. As he says, “We just happen to be in the construction industry.”

A 180º change in thinking, a huge jump in revenue.

Shannon: Kent, I’m thrilled that you could join us because I think the story you have to share—your company’s spectacular growth, your unique perspective on leadership, and how you approach leadership and leadership development in an entrepreneurial company focused on regardless of industry. Could you share a bit about who you are, where you started, Estes Construction, and your background?

Kent: Certainly, Shannon. Estes Construction was founded in 1970 by my uncle, Jim Estes, and he and my aunt grew the company through its fledgling years. I joined them in the mid-1980s and took the company over in 2003. My aunt and uncle gave me tremendous business values and a very good foundation.

As of last week, we completed our fourth acquisition, giving us four different construction companies including Estes, which is the largest, as well as an architectural firm.

Over about eight years, we’ve gone from about $35 to $40 million in revenue to somewhere around $250 million this year. So we’ve had pretty substantial growth, and to your point about leadership, we’ve been able to do that while achieving what we call in our industry ”best in class” results—our 14th consecutive year doing so.

Shannon: Wow! Can you speak a bit more about how that developed?

Kent: When I joined Strategic Coach eight years ago, we were at that $35 to $40 million mark, and I was working a lot of hours. I didn’t have any more time to give.

What Coach taught me was a different way to think and how to create leverage. Those tools, and working with you and with Dan Sullivan as he’s evolved them, are a big part of our growth and the success we’ve achieved.

Personally, I’m a great fan of Dan’s Unique Ability concept and have discovered that part of my Unique Ability is talent and leadership development, which has become a defining part of Estes Construction. It’s exciting to be here to talk about that.

The turning point: a personal leadership transformation.

Shannon: We have so much to talk about. First, congratulations on your success. When you get both quality and quantity in terms of results, it’s powerful. And you’re seeing that consistently at Estes. Before we dive in to some of the models you’ve created within the company, can you talk a bit about your own leadership journey?

Kent: When I came out of college, I was a two-sport athlete, and success was all about how hard you could work. In the early part of my construction career, the mindset was the same—that a lot of your success was the result of working hard and driving people hard.

In the early ‘90s, through the foresight of my aunt and uncle wanting to start succession planning with me, I underwent a series of assessments and videotaped role playing. I thought I’d done really well, but when we debriefed, the industrial psychologist I was working with made it clear that I hadn’t. I’m a Field Marshall in Myers-Briggs terms, which means that I’ll do anything in my power to achieve the result, even if it means, figuratively speaking, crawling over people in battle to conquer the hill. At the end, she asked, “What about the next hill?” I replied that she didn’t tell me there was another hill.

The point she made was a game changer. I realized that what had got me here wasn’t going to get me there. I realized that I had some things I had to begin to change in my leadership style, and that became my journey.

Shannon: I also have that driving, influencing need to dominate, to not just take the first hill but the hundredth. It does require a mindset shift, because if we’re not careful, we actually could be raising people in our company to be just like us. Frankly, after a while, you just run out of warm bodies.

If you’re looking to take your own leadership skills to a new level and want to learn more about how to give everyone on your team the opportunity to up their own growth and leadership in their roles, get your copy of The Strategic Coach Approach to Leadership vs. Management.

“Know thyself” as a team leadership strategy.

Shannon: Part of how you and I have worked together, Kent, has been based on profiles as very useful tools to help people to understand why and how they operate when they’re at their best. What are some of the profiles that you find most useful in helping your leadership team grow?

Kent: We use three key assessments for both individual self-awareness and team building. First is Gallup’s StrengthsFinder, which I see as helping people not only to understand their top strengths, but, more important, to understand when their strengths might betray them, which Gallup doesn’t talk about that much. So we train and develop around utilizing your strengths and understanding when they will serve you well, and when they might not.

The second assessment we use is Kolbe, which I learned about when I started Strategic Coach. We use it to understand how people approach things, how they strive, and then help our teams know how they might best work together. That’s been a goldmine for us, because we have people who are opposites and would butt heads, but once they understand that this is natural and a good thing, they’ve just taken off with it.

Shannon: That to me is a really high level of teamwork when you can say, “Okay, I know this isn’t my strength, but I know someone who has that strength. I’m willing to be open to their thinking.” It means that the result you’re aiming for is way more important than your ego.

Kent: I think one of the hardest things for CEOs and, certainly, entrepreneurs to recognize is the tipping point where other people in their organization know a lot more than they do in certain areas. How do they stay in their own lane?

Layers of leadership: learn, lead, advance.

Shannon: Kent, you also invest a lot of time, funds, and resources in the leadership of your team. Why is developing your team such a critical thing for you? There are lots of ways to grow a company, and you chose this particular route. Tell me about that.

Kent: It’s been an evolution. As we started down the growth path, I realized that I had to do some things differently, whether it was my leadership style or it was what I was learning in my early days at Coach, where you start to realize that you just can’t work more hours and expect to grow.

So the first evolution, my leadership style, forced me to lean more on our vice presidents at Estes. If we were going to grow, they had to do more to leverage me. To do this, I worked with them to leverage another layer down. To me, leverage as a team leadership strategy is the key.

At Coach, Dan’s concept of WhoNotHow is all about growth. If you want to grow, you have to ask, “Who can we leverage?” or “Who can do this?”—not “How do I, personally, get this done?”

So, the idea of learning about yourself and how you lead better actually became the platform for the four levels of leadership we’ve developed. These are the four levels:

  1. Everyday Leaders. Any person in any department can lead once they’re aware of the importance of self-knowledge and are living that.
  2. Managing Leaders. If someone has shown interest and we’re on board, they would be promoted to this level and go through another pathway of training on how to manage others. The focus is, how do I lead and inspire them, and how do I manage them? Inspiring is really about relationship, and managing is around execution. You can’t manage at the expense of relationship. It’s like a justice scale—you don’t want to get tipped out of balance.
  3. Operational Leaders. The next level of growth is managing divisions or departments. They’re the people who are going to take over leading our companies. We work with them in two ways, what I call “vertically” and “horizontally.” Vertically involves running your own department, but just as important is horizontally, working together as a team of leaders to run the company.
  4. Visionary Leaders. These are the four shareholders of the companies who set the vision for the future growth. An idea about leadership that you planted with me four or five years ago was that others only trust you to the extent that you know yourself, which is where the assessments come in. If you don’t, you’re not going to act in a dependable, consistent way with others. They become tentative and hold back things that could be important.

The transformational power of mindsets.

Shannon: We talk a lot about mindsets in Coach, and I love your Mindset Gauge model that falls right in line with that. Before people can make a change in behavior, which begins with a change in their thinking, they need to know how they’re thinking about something. Why did you bring this in, and how has it been useful?

Kent: Because we’d had so much growth at Estes, we really wanted to define what it meant to be a “dynamic” person in our company. Dynamic people create an inspiring culture that delivers a great client experience. If we do those things, we know we’re going to have a more successful outcome. At Coach at that time, we had started talking about the value of mindsets, and it really resonated with me.

I’ve believed for a long time that the only thing we get to choose is our attitude. We don’t get to choose what things come to us; we can only choose how we react to them, and our attitude affects how we react. Really, your attitude is all about your mindset.

So we created eight mindsets that we think are critical to being successful at Estes and did nine hours of training for 80 people in management about what each one meant. On the flipside of the mindset chart, there’s a scorecard.

For the most part, I see people using the scorecard as more of an assessment of where they are at a moment in time. They get a quick assessment and realize they’re not where they need to be. It’s become a self-assessment and a way to coach themselves to get where they need to be.

Clarifying 3 levels of complexity.

Kent: Shannon, we’ve created an interesting tool that we’ve found really helpful in getting clear quickly in an important area of conversation. I thought others might find it useful.

Shannon: Of course!

Kent: We’ve identified three levels of complexity in the type of interaction where someone opens a conversation with us.

Level 1: “I got it.” When someone comes into my office and says they’ve got a Level 1 for me, it tells me the person is confident about how they’ve handled something, and, more important, that I’m not supposed to say anything. They’re just extending the courtesy of information.

Level 2: “I’m not quite sure.” You know that they’ve already self-assessed but have thought about the situation in a couple of different ways, so they’re not quite sure. That helps me frame a response along the lines of, “Well, have you thought about this or this?” or “Have to talked to William? They’ve been through this.” It adds both speed clarity to the conversation.

Level 3: ”I have no clue.” It’s so important that we all learn to recognize when we have no clue what to do. But the job of the person hearing this isn’t to solve the problem. So I might say, “Well how could you think about this?” or “Chris has been through this. He might have some ideas for you.” We’re pointing them to available resources, how they might frame their thinking, what their options might be.

These three levels really help people get clarity around where their thinking is in a situation because we don’t always know that, and that then follows through in their communication with others.

Shannon: There’s something so freeing about being given permission to be honest about where you’re coming from. Underlying so much about what you’ve talked about here is the culture of openness, growth, learning, not standing on position or on past performance. Really, how you grow into something sometimes means admitting that you have no idea what to do! I like that.

Kent: To your point, Shannon, we try to let people know that it’s a sign of strength to raise your hand and say you don’t know or you’re overwhelmed—not a sign of weakness. Trying to muddle through will only add to your anxiety in those situations. Go collaborate and get help.

That permission to be honest, to reach out to the resources available, to learn is at the foundation of what we try to do.

How to get started, from crawl to walk to run.

Shannon: Kent, any piece of advice for a “Field Marshall” who’s trying to develop themselves and their team to create more of a leadership development capability in their company? What are the initial steps?

Kent: First, don’t be intimidated thinking you have to create all these things all at once. A good metaphor for this that we use a lot would be “crawl, walk, run.”

I think the first question is, “How do I start to crawl? How do I start to change both myself and my leadership? How do I begin to leverage others? How do I get them to buy in?”

Then, find some other resources. Once you’ve set your mind that you want to do this, commit to it—because it is a mindset. I had to change my mindset. Start slowly, but ask other people who’ve been on the journey for their ideas, and talk to your team, be a bit more transparent about what you want to do, and see if they will be a part of that.

You’re going to need help; remember, you want leverage—other people who’ve done it, or working with someone like Strategic Coach and Shannon who can help you. There are a lot of resources out there, and we learn these things as we go.

There’s no right or wrong; it’s what works for you.

If you’re intrigued by what you’ve just read …

Listen to the full interview, where you’ll learn even more:

  • More details on the strategies Kent has implemented to create a culture of learning and leadership at every level in his companies.
  • How he encourages his team to contribute their strengths to big, bold company goals that could otherwise trap people into thinking they’re not up to the task.
  • A great story about growth—how a long-time employee who began her leadership journey at reception became one of Estes’s four visionary leaders.

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