The complexity of leadership

Alan Bracken started at age 19 and created a successful asphalt paving company from scratch.  And what he found after his company reached a financial plateau was that to grow any further he had to grow as a leader. 

The leadership track he put himself on not only helped his double the company’s business and revenues, but convinced him that his lifelong passion in life was to teach other people about leadership. So last year he sold the paving company to focus on teaching and coaching leadership in others. 

Speaking at the Randall-Reilly Construction Symposium today, Bracken compared leadership to the complex challenge of piloting a helicopter (another skill he taught himself.) Like a business, a helicopter has a lot of moving parts and to get them all working together to create flight requires the pilot to use both hands, both feet and focus intently on the environment around him.

“As a leader you have to be aware of a lot of different components, and if they don’t all come together like they should you won’t have a successful flight,” Bracken says. “As leaders we have to be constantly aware of so many things to bring the team together to get things done.” 

When he first started out in his paving company, Bracken quickly mastered the technical demands of the work and made a lot of money. ” I was good at the job, but not the soft skills, helping my employees with their attitude.  And I had to get out of my own comfort zone to do that. It costs you and its not always easy. But the rewards are awesome,” he said.

The way you do this, says Bracken is you ask your employees for feedback.

“Are they following you for just a paycheck?” he asks. ” People want to know you care. Early on I didn’t care, I only cared about the job. It works but it is miserable at the end of the day. You just have to sit down with five people that know you and ask what’s it like to be on the other side of me.”

And if this makes you uncomfortable, be best place to start is the people closest to you, in particular, your spouse,” he says.

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While this may seem like capitulation to employees, Bracken says if you keep the discussions real and not just gripe sessions you can find out a lot about what’s hampering the growth or efficiency of your company. He cites the software firm SAS which provides all kinds of employee perks and 35 hour work weeks yet their employees routinely outperform their competitors. Why? Because the perks are things that address needs employees say distract them from their work and make it hard to perform at their peak.

“That’s what happens when you create a culture where people want to work,” Bracken says. 

Leaders also need patience, but you don’t have to have patience with poor performance, he says, you address it, but in a kind way and in a way that will edify the employees, not tear them down. “You have to have the  patience to do this right, he says.”

Trust is also important. “Without performance is hindered. In this society trust is low in a lot of areas,” he says. “A leader’s job to make sure trust is restored.  Admit when you screw up.”