Developing Leadership Through A Culture Of Trust And Innovation


James Barlow is the CEO of BZI Steel, a leading technology steel erection company providing construction project safety and efficiency.

What came first? The culture or the company?

From my standpoint, culture. As CEO of BZI Steel, culture was critical from our inception. We formed the company understanding it was a value-generating vehicle to support our team members, their friends and family and our community. Teamwork, innovation and action became cultural cornerstones for our organization that we could hire and develop around.

Our culture started from humble beginnings. Our first pole barn was erected by just five workers in Southern Utah over a decade ago. Today, BZI has over 700 team members nationally, revenue is surging, and we were just named a “Top Workplace” and listed in Inc. 5000’s “Fastest Growing Companies.” Despite the massive employee and revenue growth, culture remains the company’s foundation.

We all know culture starts at the top, but how do you maintain it at scale? Can you continue developing teams that thrive and share successes throughout the organization while rapidly expanding and exceeding customer expectations? I can firmly say “yes.” Here’s why:

• Culture is the company’s bedrock. The services and mechanics of the business are subject to change, but culture remains the pillar of the organization.

• Going to work should be a meaningful experience. AT BZI, we envisioned a workplace where our people could make an impact, have fun, be excited and be rewarded. Pursuing this balance became the essence of our journey in developing our company culture.

• Businesses largely reflect the persona or personality of their leadership. It starts at the top and goes beyond the mission statement, policies, handbooks and manuals. Teams across the organization see and hear the message but must experience the integrity of that message in the delivery of results from leadership.

So why does a leader’s personality have such an impact on a business?

Becoming a leader—whatever your strengths or weaknesses—will be exponentially manifested within your organization. Your commitment to self-assess, change and improve will predict the opportunities and competencies that your team will achieve. This is true for companies, divisions and groups of any size.

Leaders are tasked with solving problems and setting direction. In doing so, we have our worldview lens and biases that will allocate resources, establish precedent and drive initiatives. The results of these decisions will attract those who agree and drive away those who don’t. Your strengths will be magnified because you will allocate resources and solve problems effectively in those areas. Your weaknesses will be magnified because those areas will be addressed last by default and are more challenging to resolve.

That’s where your leadership team comes into play. As a collective, we concluded that BZI would be a people-first organization. We believed in finding a healthy, sustainable balance of investment and growth for the business and personal growth in “high-value” compensation for our team members that would contribute to a higher quality of life for the entire community (i.e., homes, education, health, etc.).

Then, we articulated the organization’s purpose, vision, values, motto and mission and shared them to help clarify and communicate our expectations and intentions across the team. More importantly, when issues surfaced, or circumstances occurred, we used this message as our North Star to guide leadership in how we would deal with challenges both internally and with our clients.

I have learned that as a leader, to scale a company and keep the culture intact, you must build and nurture leaders. Culture starting at the top is only as good as the team members executing the vision daily. My advice based on experience:

1. Assess the talents within your leadership team and leverage their strengths. Like myself, every person has their strengths and weaknesses. Support the strengths and offer to help grow and learn through the imperfections. Ensure your leadership team then does the same for their team members.

2. Technical competencies are essential for a leader to be effective and build trust with their team. Still, people skills are more critical when it comes to delivering results. Leaders must be trusted by their team to be effective by demonstrating the competency and character that build the credibility needed to lead.

3. Most businesses suffer when trying to scale. Systems and processes can be trained for, but leadership skills are people-centric and considered “soft skills,” which makes them more challenging to understand and apply. We invested in leadership development programs and specifically promoted team members who consistently supported our cultural values and the competencies necessary to lead.

When culture comes first, the company can and will thrive throughout its journey.

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