Vail Valley Voice: Reflections on leadership
Ryan Summerlin April 11, 2013
Editor’s note: Kevin O’Donnell is the president of Beck Building Co.
What has been your most impactful leadership experience?
I came to work for Beck Building Co. right out of college and have now spent 17-plus years in this wonderful organization. Working here, I have been blessed to be surrounded by great leaders and excellent team members who demonstrate good leadership on a daily basis.
Instead of having one or two big moments of impactful leadership experiences, I find I have benefited from numerous and consistent smaller moments, which have evolved into many year’s worth of leadership lessons.
I learned from moments when someone stood up for something they believed in; when they felt so strongly about something that there was a slight shake in their voice as they talked about their point of view; moments when there was no clear path to a solution and someone unexpected stepped up to guide us forward.
The consistency of the integrity applied to decisions made every day continues to amaze me – moments when the wrong thing to do would have been easy, but the right thing was done instead.
These small moments taught me about integrity, passion, principled leadership, empathy, honesty and the true meaning of trust.
How would you describe your leadership approach or philosophy?
Servant leadership has long been the center of my leadership philosophy, although I didn’t have a name for it until just recently. This leadership style was also in use by my mentors at Beck Building Co., Andy Beck and Frank Payne.
Top-down, authoritarian style of leadership characterized my vision of what leadership was as early on. What I have come to learn however, is that great leaders spend more time listening and less time talking. They are inquisitive, constantly seeking information that will allow them to better understand the big picture or to truly understand a particular challenge.
The knowledge gained provides the leader with perspective and awareness. It allows for empathy in dealing with people.
Armed with good information, the leader is now in a position to be a more competent guide and steward of the organization. Rather than providing the solution, a good leader provokes thought and empower people to come up with solutions on their own.
The leader’s job is to create an environment where great things happen, not necessarily to make great things happen on their own.
It is liberating to come to the realization that it is not necessary to have all the answers. I am surrounded by very smart people, and it is my job to provide them with what they need in order to work at their very best.
And how has that evolved over time?
Learning to be a good leader is a lifelong process, and I have a long way to go.
With the knowledge that no one is perfect and that we can all learn and improve, I move ahead, attempting to refine my leadership philosophy with the help of others.
For me, gaining confidence in myself and feeling I have the confidence and support of my team has allowed me to be more open in talking about what my leadership philosophy is and what I want it to be. It has allowed me to engage my team in helping me to become a better leader.
I have made the realization that I build on the examples and leadership styles of those around me, particularly those within my own organization.
What’s the most important leadership lesson you’ve learned?
Leadership takes courage. I’m not talking about the kind of courage a great general has in leading his troops into battle. It takes that, too, but I am more struck by those who maintain the courage of their convictions in the more mundane day-to-day decisions and actions.
Doing the right thing when no one is looking and holding true to your values and principals, even in the smallest of gestures reveals one’s true character and demonstrates principled leadership.
I see people demonstrating courage every day standing up for something they believe in or delivering on a promise, no matter how small. The trust that is built from these small actions, be it with our industry partners, our clients or our families, is extremely powerful.
There are leadership tests everywhere, and they come when you least expect it. I admire those who always stand ready to meet the challenge.
What programs have you been involved with at Vail Leadership Institute and what have you taken from that experience?
I am a member of the entrepreneurs roundtable of leaders group. Our group is made up of leaders who have either started their own businesses or, like me, have taken over leadership of established organizations.
Our year-long program started with a weekend retreat where we got to know each other, which I expected. What I didn’t expect was how I would come to know myself at a deeper level. We explored our inner passions and began a process of understanding our purpose in life.
The exercises promoted discussion and provoked thought. I learned an important lesson about the importance of taking time to stop and think about who you are and who you want to be.
Our group is passionate, vocal and focused on the development of each member of the group. We have developed a true board of advisers. In our group meetings, we work. We dive into the topic or exercise at hand, communicating deeply and openly. As we like to say, when we get together magic happens. Every leader should have a group like this in their life.
Talk about the culture you’re trying to create at your company.
Beck Building Co. is 40 years old this year. We have an established culture of acting with integrity. We believe in doing what you say you are going to do and being accountable for your actions.
We treat others with respect and seek to create a professional working environment that is safe and enjoyable for everyone.
We are focused on implementing processes and procedures that lead to consistency of performance. We want to do this in a balanced way that allows for the freedom of each member of our team to have a voice in how they respond to challenges. The intended outcome is “grounded empowerment.”
We would like to get better at providing continuing education opportunities for our team. Their growth, both personally and professionally, is important to us and we have established a goal of being more consistent in providing personal development opportunities for each member of our team.
Any people who were big influences on you?
One of my favorite leaders to read about is Theodore Roosevelt. He lived his life with vigor, constantly challenging himself both physically and mentally. He exemplifies courage in leadership.
He was America’s first environmentally minded president, and had the far-reaching vision of establishing our national park system. He chose his own path in the world and was constantly in control of his destiny. He certainly meets the definition of a life well lived.
The Vail Valley has many ethical, effective leaders. By helping them tell their stories, the Vail Leadership Institute hopes to inspire others to engage the heart in leadership.