There’s little question that leadership is important. Employees consistently rank confidence in those at the top and a sense of “connectedness” with the decision-making process as very important to their satisfaction on the job. Even more important, in many cases, than more tangible things such as pay and benefits.
But leadership styles differ from one company and one industry to the next, and no two executives seem to do things exactly the same way.
To look for common threads, The Washington Post invited three leaders from very different companies to talk about their journey to the top, how they inspire the people around them and why they do what they do.
Workplace Dynamics asked more than 50,000 employees in the Washington area to rate the extent to which they have confidence in their company’s leadership on a scale of one to 10. These three executives hail from the small, medium-sized and large companies whose employees gave their leaders the highest marks.
John McBeth is chief executive of Next Century, a small government software contractor that supports the defense and intelligence communities.
Kirsten Prettyman Adams is head of St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School, a nonprofit institution that teaches more than 1,100 students from around the region.
Brett Hitt is co-president of Hitt Contracting, a regional construction firm that employs 750 people nationally and made almost $1 billion last year.
Here’s what they had to say, edited for brevity and clarity:
John McBeth: I started out as a software engineer. On 2001, September 4, we started with a new company that was venture-backed, and we had $100 million to go and buy companies to build mobile applications.
My first opportunity to meet with people was on 9/11 in San Diego. I live in Howard County, and my assistant came to me and proposed that I be on American Flight 77 [one of the airliners that was hijacked that day and flown into the Pentagon]. And the only reason that I’m here right now is I didn’t want to get up and fight the traffic to catch a 9 o’clock flight out of Washington Dulles International Airport. So I flew out the night before on September 10th, woke up on 9/11, turned on the TV and saw the towers burning.
So of course all my meetings were a bust, flights were canceled and I proceeded to drive home, and it was on the drive that I decided I had to do something. I couldn’t go put on a uniform and go fight, but I knew something about technology. I knew something about government contracting. So instead of building mobile applications, we created this organization, which is called Next Century. Our belief is that the information to have prevented those attacks did exist, it just didn’t get to the right people at the right time. And our mission is to solve that problem.
Kirsten Adams: I had the privilege of doing a project during my senior year of high school, working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and I’ll never forget that moment when we were working with some children on a farm, and seeing the joy and the passion that they found in this moment. It made me know I wanted to teach forever.
So I started teaching right out of college. That was where I imagined my life to be; I was thrilled and loved working with kids on a daily basis, and over time I’ve had wonderful mentors who have encouraged me to try new roles and responsibilities.
There’s a woman named Aggie Underwood who was the head of school at National Cathedral School when I first started teaching there. And she is the person who gave me opportunities that I didn’t deserve at the time and who helped me navigate my way up. Throughout my career, she just continues to be a guide, even as I moved on to other opportunities.
Brett Hitt: I’m third-generation, so I kind of grew up living and breathing our culture.
I worked every summer, every Christmas and every Easter since I was 11, and never stopped. I don’t know what I’d do if they fired me! [laughs]
I didn’t have to follow in the family business. My Dad was good about that. He said very early on “Don’t do this, it’s a hard business.” But I have had a passion for building for as long as I can remember.
Coming up, gaining experience, it was a lot of being tossed into the fire. I probably did more things wrong than I did right. But I entered the business at a time when the region was growing and business just rocketed. We just reacted to the opportunities in front of us. It was very engaging.
My brother-in-law is co-president; he has been married to my sister forever. So he and I really jointly run the operation. My dad is chairman. He just turned 80. It’s been a great family journey, and it’s really been a lot of fun along the way. I don’t think we’ve had two fights in 35 years.
John McBeth: The whole Edward Snowden issue [the Booz Allen Hamilton contractor who released national security secrets] really created some challenges for our employees who feel like they’re here to protect the country and yet their friends are challenging them, saying “Why would you do that kind of work for a government that spies on us?’”
They heard those kind of challenges. Of course, they know that’s not what we do, we don’t do that. But it was hard, it was really hard.
So we talked about it. We reminded them why we are here. Our mission.
Brett Hitt: Probably the hardest thing has been my own personal evolution as the organization has grown. It’s been exciting to get up in the morning but also stressful and taxing. So there’s probably not a day that goes by that we (and I) haven’t had to be more challenged to do something different and contribute value.
There’s usually this presumption that “Whatever got me here is what will continue to work at the next level.” But one of the things I’ve learned is that evolution must absolutely be continuous. You can’t stop.
Kirsten Adams: Making sure I have time to do the listening that I need to do. To be present, to just be able to hear [employees’] stories, and hear their perspectives is the biggest challenge from a leadership perspective. On my calendar I put down “walk around” time just to be in the classroom. Or to go and play with the kindergartners, that’s one of my favorite times of the day.
John McBeth: You have to listen to what people say. You can’t decide that you’re right and “We’re gonna do this or it’s the highway.” Particularly when you mention the millennials; boy, what a different culture. What a different mind-set.
I’ll give you an example. We have these “SCIF’s” — that’s a classified facility — where we do work. And there’s this issue of trash collection. The people who collect the trash don’t have security clearances. So it had always been our practice that when it’s trash collection time, the operation comes to a stop and everybody puts their trash can out in the hall, and for 30 minutes, everyone waits for the trash to be collected.
One of the guys says, “Why do we do that?” Why do we have to stop work for 30 minutes? Why don’t we all collect our own trash cans and take it outside? Or have somebody with a clearance go up and down the aisles and collect them?
And we implemented it within a week of hearing that. And when the feedback came back, holy cow! We gained 30 minutes of productivity on hundreds of people. And I just thought to myself, why didn’t I think of that? But of course it came from them.
Brett Hitt: We do regular surveys. We fielded, in the last three years, an average of 1,500 comments a year from employees. I personally read every comment. I don’t respond to every comment, but certainly you start to see trends.
I call it “ideation.” Some of it is complaints, but the word ideation sounds better. And we respond if we start seeing trends in those complaints . . . and certainly with the millennials coming in, we’ve seen a lot of changes recently where we say, “We have to respond to these changes in the marketplace,” so we devote time to it.
Growing up, working in a family business with longtime managers, I essentially had 10 fathers guiding me at various stages in my career. So I grew up with a kind of immense respect for what goes on out there. It made me listen and be very close to our team members.
Kirsten Adams: We get a lot of feedback not only from our employees but from our parents. We have 1,150 students, and their parents all give us feedback on an annual basis, which helps us do better as a school. Ultimately, though, it comes back to the students. If you can bring the decisions that you make back to how it’s going to impact the kids, that’s how people get onboard.
John McBeth: We have a leadership development course that we call “leadership exploration and development,” and we do all kinds of fun things as part of that. It’s not about how to do a budget or how to do a plan or anything like that. It’s really about the philosophy of leadership, and creating what we refer to as a high-performance organization.
For instance, we watch movies and draw lessons from certain segments. The one that we’re studying now is “The Devil Wears Prada” [about an assistant to the demanding editor in chief of a high fashion magazine.]
Brett Hitt: Park ranger.
Kirsten Adams: Biologist, something out in the field.
John McBeth: Astronaut.