Greg Graves on leadership, STEM, and the recipe for success

Greg Graves, Chairman and CEO, Burns & McDonnell

Greg Graves is the outgoing chairman and CEO of Kansas City-based Burns & McDonnell. After 13 years at the helm of the company during a time of impressive growth, Graves is now headed for retirement. This week, he sat down with members of the Urban Land Institute to share some of his biggest business lessons learned and give a glimpse into what his retirement will entail. As far as we can tell, he isn’t slowing down anytime soon.

On his retirement

It’s your duty to think of the institution first and help them prepare [for your retirement]. For the last two years, the important thing was whether my board is in the right place, that my executive management group in the right place, if we had the right qualified people, and whether I was leaving any ghosts behind.

We had three incredible candidates in-house who would take my company further than perhaps I ever believed. On January 1 I announced my retirement; January 8, I announce the next CEO. I thought that’d be it but my phone won’t stop ringing now, and I think it’s classic of Kansas City.

Before retiring, Graves led the company through the $80 million expansion of its world headquarters. More on that project here.

His strategy for success

We have no desire to become the biggest engineering or construction company in America. We care about being the best place to work, having the best safety record, being one of the best service providers, and being one of the most financially successful companies in our industry. We’re a private company, in addition to being employee-owned. I don’t care what some mutual advisor in New York City thinks about our quarter, nor do I want to start acquiring other construction companies, which is the easiest way to become the worst place to work in America.

At Burns & McDonnell, our regional office strategy is to wait for one of the big three, AECOM or Jacobs, to buy one of our competitors, and then we go open an office in that city. We’ve done it in Dallas-Fort Worth and Southern California, and they always come in, make their quarter, and then ruin that firm. Then Burns & Mac steps in. The CEOs of these other companies say acquisitions are the future of our industry and I say hooray. I love it.

On employee retention and diversity

Years ago, we averaged a 12 percent turnover rate compared to an industry average of 10 to 15 percent. Not terrible, but we wanted to examine why we were losing people two, three, and four years in. Our female turnover between the ages of 22 and 30 was higher than our white male turnover, and this wasn’t B performers we were losing; It was the A performers. We were losing a lot of first- and second time moms, which is unacceptable if you’re trying to become a more diverse workplace.

In fact, if you looked at my board of directors, you’d have seen six white, straight Christian men. I promoted the first female into that group in the 118-year history of the firm. It’s pathetic. But having Melissa Wood in our executive management group meetings has made them infinitely better, because a different perspective and a different angle makes all ideas and solutions better. At a minimum, those ideas are different. All of those different ideas tend to shape eventual solutions. So we worked hard to improve the 22 to 30-year-old female turnover, and now we’ve opened the Mac Kids Learning Academy. It was instantly sold out with a waiting list. We also have a health center and pharmacy right across the hall. And today, our turnover rate is 4 percent.

Graves credits Burns & McDonnell's new Mac Kids Learning Academy for helping to improve the company's retention rate with first- and second-time moms. Read more on the world headquarters addition here.

On STEM education

One of the great things that will be talked about by the right and the left is the middle class of America. Some say it’s disappearing because it’s being outsourced to India, or because Greg Graves doesn’t pay enough taxes. It’s actually disappearing because autonomous vehicles are around the corner and cell phones will be in your shirt, and the jobs being created right now aren’t going to exist 25 or even 15 years from now. There are the better paying jobs because of tech, and low paying jobs because of tech. This challenge and where your children end up is completely dependent on their STEM education, and whether they’re ready for that world.

On his biggest lesson in leadership

There’s one leadership lesson that I’m imploring the new CEO of Burns & McDonnell. I know some of the best leaders in the last 100 years of this city: Barnett and Shirley Helzberg, Henry Bloch, John Hall Jr., Jonathan Thomas. And everyone thinks to be a great leader in this economy, you have to be a future-predicting genius. I don't think that’s true at all. The best leaders in this town have consistently been the best listeners. They ask way more questions than give speeches. They intently listen to the ideas people have, and they never interrupt them until they’re done.

At Burns & McDonnell, we have Principals Day. It’s the hardest promotion to get at Burns & McDonnell. This year we had 140 nominees; We picked 14 to go into our principal group. The afternoon is spent putting a problem in front of the group and telling them they have an hour to come up with five “no bad ideas.” Those people have to have courage and honesty to come before you and say, “Yes, Greg. Here are five ideas on how to fix this problem, and three of them are contrary to your current policy.” The great leaders in this town to have the conviction to let those people talk before they speak. To ask questions and delve, and then not be afraid to have someone come into your office and say that you’re wrong. I think it’s the reason so many Kansas City companies have done so well. They’re built by midwesterners who leave their ego at the door every morning and do it for the right reasons.