Episode 264: Life Lessons Learned from Mike Choutka

Episode Summary

Leaders are responsible for dealing with difficult times, but that doesn’t mean every leader will find the best answers. Last year, a hard-times making machine put every leader’s abilities to deal with adversity to the test. 


Today’s guest, Mike Choutka, President and CEO of Hensel Phelps, based his strategy to cope with tough times on momentum, the perpetual motion. He went to the fundamentals and succeeded with two simple principles. First, maintain the company’s momentum. Fortify what’s already working. And second, create new momentum, new ideas to trigger that impulse. He also shares his thoughts on what attributes a good leader should have and valuable advice from his more than 25 years of experience in the building industry.  


Rob Shallenberger: Alright, welcome back to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners. This is your host, Rob Shallenberger. Welcome. It’s an exciting time of year; we’re going now into 2021, good riddance 2020. And I’ve got a really good friend and someone who I view very highly on our podcast today. And so, we’re so excited to have him here. He’s going to bring with him – as you’ll see and hear – a wealth of information, of lessons learned, of thoughts and ideas. And so, I’m going to briefly introduce him, and then I’m gonna let him talk a little bit more about his background. And then the way I want to take and approach this podcast is really in two parts. Number one is really kind of focused on the professional side, the business side; for people listening that are working in any career field, this will be very applicable to them. And then we’re going to shift over to the personal side of things because, like I mentioned, Mike, who I’ll introduce has just a wealth of background and experiences and lessons learned that I think would be really helpful to delve into and to share and to talk about. And so, we’re really going to focus on both sides of this, the professional and the personal. And I would encourage everyone to stay on for the full time because Mike is truly one of – and I know that he wouldn’t want me to say this – but one of the greats.  

Rob Shallenberger: And so, let me introduce my friend, Mike, who is the current CEO of Hensel Phelps. I met Mike several years ago through an organization called YPO. And from that point, we had a chance to build a friendship, I’ve had the chance to work with his company in strategic planning and working with different parts of the organization, some of the managers, superintendents, and so on. And just amazing to see and watch the impact he’s had on so many lives. Hensel Phelps – for those who are not familiar with it – is a construction company that has about 3900 employees. And Mike has been with them for over 30 years. He started out in an entry-level position, he’s now their CEO. And they are involved in all kinds of projects from the Air and Space Museum, building that and being primarily responsible for that, to the reconstruction of major airports throughout the United States. And so, Hensel Phelps is just an incredible organization. It’s been so fun to get a behind the scenes glimpse at what they’re doing with the people and the culture and how they’re truly building something great. And that really starts at the top with leadership – him, the executive team, and everybody else – as it ripples throughout the organization, and so huge credit to Mike. So, first of all, Mike, welcome to the podcast. 

Mike Choutka: Well, thank you, Rob. Thanks for having me on your podcast, and I’m really excited to exchange some ideas with you today. 

Rob Shallenberger: Well, and if you don’t mind, Mike – I gave a very high-level overview and background – and if you don’t mind, maybe just share with our listeners before we jump into this, some of your background: where you grew up, and some of the things behind the scenes. A little bit about you, if you will. 

Mike Choutka: Yeah, sure. Thanks. So, yeah, I grew up on a farm, actually, in Northeast Nebraska and went to school at the University of Nebraska. And when I graduated, Hensel Phelps had just won a significant contract to be one of the contractors building the Denver International Airport. And so, I know that dates me just a little bit, but I started on that project as an entry-level field engineer, and worked in the Colorado Front Range Market for probably about a dozen years and then transferred to our Florida office and ran that group down there in the Southeast part of the United States. And then in 2011 I moved up to the Northern Virginia, DC area, and oversaw operations on the East Coast and now I’ve been back in Colorado for a little while, taking over as president and CEO in 2019. And so, it’s kind of the full circle back to where I started. It’s great to be back in Colorado and great to be with the company this long and see its growth. 

Rob Shallenberger: Yeah. And just as a reminder so that people know, how many kids do you have and what’s their age ranges? 

Mike Choutka: I’ve been married to my lovely wife, Barb, for 30 years, coming up on 30 years. And so, we have three kids, my oldest is 24, and just completing graduate school. And then my middle is 22 and he’s in college as well. And my youngest is a sophomore in college. And so, all three of them are right in the prime of their educational years and they’re doing a great job and we’re really proud of all of them. 

Rob Shallenberger: So, Mike has officially reached the stage in which we would call him now seasoned. 

Mike Choutka: Yeah, seasoned and poor, with three college educations going on at once, I have to say. 

Rob Shallenberger: Oh, no kidding. Alright, well, let’s jump into this, Mike. On the professional side of things, there’s a lot of people listening to this in every level of an organization. And so you’ve been at Hensel Phelps, like we mentioned, for almost 30 years. You started out in that entry-level position, you’re now the president and CEO. So, you’ve seen a lot in that time, that tenure. What advice would you have for someone that might be starting out in their career – regardless of industry – they’re starting out in their career, and what does it take to move up in an organization like this? What thoughts would you have on that? 

Mike Choutka: Well, first of all, I feel very fortunate, very honored, and very humbled to be in the role that I’m in. I pinch myself every day when I wake up, it’s really incredible. And a lot of that had to do with some good fortune, certainly, opportunities had to come along at the right time, I had to be available to seize them, and I had to have the ability. And so, I always say that opportunity, availability, and ability all had to intersect at various stages of my career. So, that’s a kind of a preamble. Certainly, good fortune comes into play as well. But, you know our board of directors, Rob, you’ve met all of them at that time was with us. And it’s an internal board, and it’s made up primarily of our business unit leaders. And so, I get asked that question a lot because we are an internal board, anyone who’s in the company could make it to the board. And so, I get asked the question, “Hey, how do I make it to the board? What does it take?” And the first thing I usually say is, “Well, don’t quit. If you leave the company, I will guarantee that you will never make it to the board.” So, the first thing is you have to stick around, and sometimes that’s not always so easy. We work in a very difficult industry – construction is a lot of long hours, our people work on projects, they’re outside, they might work in an on-site office trailer, they can’t just work from home because they have to be on-site managing the work and supporting the trades, men and women on the job site. And so, a lot of those conditions are challenging, there are challenging deadlines, it’s very stressful and they also have to go where the work is. And so, you have to go where the projects exist, which means our people move a lot. And it’s not uncommon for people to move a dozen or more times in their career. So, it’s difficult, but it’s also extremely rewarding. And it’s one of the few industries where you literally can track tangible progress every day. You can look outside at your project and see the project or the progress that you’ve made. You can do that every week, every month and it’s really gratifying to be able to see that your hard work is paying off like that. And so, the other part of it that I’ll say is it’s one of those things that for years to come, you can always look back and look at your work. You can drive by buildings, you can drive by projects that you’ve been a part of, and show those to your kids and grandkids and it’s really cool to be able to see some of those legacy projects. But along the way, there will be tough times, there’s no doubt about it. And I think anybody will be challenged in our industry, there’s a lot of industries, most industries are difficult, and have their own sets of challenges. And so, what I tell our people all the time is you have to have grit, you have to be able to stick to it, you have to have passion for what you’re doing. You have to persevere through some of those tougher times. And we hire some of the best and brightest out of all the best colleges and universities across the country. And so, we hire the smartest people, the people with the most experience, the people that show great leadership skills, and all of those things are super important. But the most important element that it takes to stick through a career and make it to a high level is you have to have that factor of grit. And that’s the advice that I give to our folks all the time. 

Rob Shallenberger: Man, I love that. And you know, there’s a saying that we use a lot that you know – and we’ve talked about this, Mike – that “We will either create a culture by design or we’ll have a culture by default.” And what you just described is the culture by design that you and the board and the other leaders within Hensel Phelps have certainly created because grit, passion, ownership, these are things that are part of the core values that people love, and they rally around these. I mean, I see the people on LinkedIn that you’re hiring and their excitement, their passion. Man, when you couple that over the course of thousands of people where they have that grit, that passion, that enthusiasm, that no-quit attitude, that makes for an awesome organization. And so, that’s pretty impressive to see from the outside what’s happened within Hensel Phelps. So, kind of a cool description, thanks for sharing that. Let me shift gears just a little bit here because we’re going into 2021, it’s this theme about people and businesses. There’s been a lot of challenges, obviously, both on the business side and personal side throughout 2020. So, what would you say to someone who’s looking for something positive to take into 2021? 

Mike Choutka: Well, that’s a great question. And to answer I need to kind of go back a little bit to the 2008-2009 recession. And our industry is a little bit different than a lot of others in the fact that when the economy shifts, either to the good or to the bad, we generally have contracts in place that are two or three years in length. And so, in 2008-2009 when the recession hit, we had a lot of good projects that we had under contract. And so, we didn’t really feel the effects until probably 2011 is when it started to affect us because we had so much work on the books that we had to go build. But we learned a lot and it was difficult. Those years of 2011 through ’14 were not a lot of fun. And so, we learned a lot of lessons from those, really, from that point on, the last five or six years, we’ve been building this momentum kind of one step at a time. And I think back to the optimism that we had in January of 2020. And, again, I think almost anybody in any industry was extremely optimistic as this year started. The economy was humming along, unemployment was low, there was a huge war on talent and everybody was excited about what they might be able to do in 2020. And then, obviously, COVID hit and so many things changed; in fact, everything changed. I mean, all these new guidelines, ordinances and work from home, and don’t travel, and don’t meet with clients, and don’t rely upon all the ways that you’ve done business in person, stay home, don’t go out to eat. I mean, all of these things that we all had to adjust to. I will say that Hensel, Phelps was very fortunate because a lot of our projects remained essential. And so, we slugged our way through the year and have done okay, but we also had projects delayed, canceled, we’ve seen a lot more competition in our industry, the fee environment is much lower than it was, project financing is more difficult.  

Mike Choutka: So, it has been a challenging year, but when I reflect back and think about how do I take something positive into 2021, I think about the last five or six years, and I think about all of that momentum that we built up to get to the start of 2020. And why let all that slip away? Why have an excuse of “Well, we had a rough year because of something we couldn’t control”? Why let all that momentum go by the wayside? And so, I’m telling our team, and I would share this with anybody in any industry is “Keep the momentum going.” And momentum is a great thing, it’s perpetual motion, and we all know this from physics, once you get things started, it’s easier to keep going. Once you’re in motion, it’s harder for something to stop you. And once we get going on things, the stronger and more resilient we become. And so, let’s keep that momentum going, and the way to do that, I think is to reflect on the things that you put in place that got you to 2020. What are those things that you can carry forward into 2021? What are those step by step components that you can keep going? And so, I’ve challenged our team to look at this in two facets, regarding momentum. One is to conserve momentum and the term that I’ve used for that is fortified. If we fortify the things that maybe don’t live up to our standard – and if excellence is our standard – then let’s look at the things that maybe don’t stack up to our standard and let’s go solidify those things or let’s go fortify those things. And we have to look at everything, nothing’s off-limits. And we have to look at the things that have gone well, too. And I look at a couple of areas for us in 2020 because of limits on travel and getting groups together, we lost some ground on training. And so, we’re going to fortify all of the training components that maybe we didn’t complete in 2020. We’re going to fortify those in ’21. We’re also going to look at some areas that because of just teamwork and some of the cohesiveness that we lost in 2020 some of the back to the basics, some of the elements that we know work that maybe we weren’t as crisp on, we’re gonna go fortify those in 2021. And so, fortify is the component of conserving momentum.  

Mike Choutka: And then the second piece is, I believe we have to continue to build momentum. And so, I call that part of it ‘new’. How do we create some new things that will trigger momentum? Let’s not feel sorry for ourselves, let’s not think about all the things that happened to us. Let’s think of new ways that we can build on the momentum that we had and that we carried into 2020. And really, anything new can be a catalyst for momentum. And I would say don’t let the fear of failure keep you from trying some things. And some things might not work, but I think that we have to come up with new ways to create new momentum. And it’s not the same as tweaking something old, it has to be something new, something that’s exciting. And it has to be a noticeable improvement over what it’s replacing, or what we’ve done before, and it has to be great. I don’t think you can produce momentum by something that’s mediocre. And so, a few things that come to mind for us is, at the end of the year, I would usually write some kind of a letter or some kind of a year-end recap to our employees. Well, this year, I’m shooting a video. I’m going to do a video with graphics and really try to take it to a different level because I just don’t feel like a letter is appropriate this year.  

Rob Shallenberger: That’s awesome.  

Mike Choutka: We also have a few different events, we have an annual old-timers event every January and we can’t do that in person this year. And so, we came up with a really clever way. We shot these sort of almost like Zoom discussions with all of our fire employees, our milestone employees of like, 20, 25, 30-year-old employees of the company. And so, we had this really cool form that we came up with, which is something completely new and different than we’ve ever done before. And it’s a result of us not being able to get together, but we’re going to launch that in early January. So, I just think about all of these ways that we can create new momentum. I mean, look at the momentum that the vaccine is creating, there’s a ton of optimism just around that. And so, kind of to wrap up and to summarise, I really believe that if we look at the things that we’ve done, there’s a ton of takeaways there in the last four or five years that all of us in any industry have built upon. Let’s look for those things to carry them forward, fortify the areas that maybe don’t live up to our standard, and let’s come up with new ways to trigger momentum, but momentum is the key in 2021. 

Rob Shallenberger: And what a great answer, Mike. I just had my thoughts racing as you were talking. And you were talking about fortifying and momentum. And I remember when we were together with the board a couple of years ago doing the strategic planning, and you used the example of Vince Lombardi. And this is probably a good reminder for any business. Every season he would start off the season and he’d walk in the locker room and he’d hold up a football and say, “Gentlemen, what is this? It’s a football right?” Then he walks outside and he walks to the end zone, and says “What’s our objective? Get the football in this endzone, cross this line.” He started with the basics, they were masters of the fundamentals, and they never let those slip out of their cross-check. Everything you just said is a great reminder for all of us, regardless of where we are in the team or an organization to fortify those areas, to build and create new ways, new ideas to generate momentum. So, I love all that and I hope we take that to heart. If we shift gears on to the personal side, Mike, a lot of people listening to this may not be in the workforce right now or may be in the workforce, but there’s a lot of things going on in people’s lives – mental health, emotional health, physical health, relationships. And so, there’s this whole other side of the equation and you’ve had a chance to associate with a lot of different groups, very successful people, YPO, many other organizations. And even though we say the word successful, we all have challenges. If you look at every person walking through a mall, I think it would be safe to assume that every single person has challenges that nobody else on the outside knows anything about. And so, tapping into your experience throughout your life, if you had to share some advice with our listeners, maybe two or three of your biggest lessons learned through your life that have really impacted you at a personal level, what would you say? What would you share? 

Mike Choutka: Well, I think the first thing is what I’ve learned over time – and this goes for just being a good person and also being a good leader – you have to be empathetic. And I think 2020 has really drawn that to light probably more than anything that I’ve witnessed and experienced. And so, the people that have empathy for others that actually look for what challenges they might be facing and factor that into how they treat those people, how they think about things, how they solve problems, how they interact, I think is just one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from so many great people over the years. And I really feel strongly that in 2020, it all came together and became crystal clear to me that the past, jerk leader style just absolutely does not work anymore. And you have to be an empathetic leader. That’s what I think people are looking for, I think that’s what they want to follow. And it’s the same thing for just being a good person. I don’t believe that people are drawn to others that don’t have empathy, and that can’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes. And so, that’s probably one of the biggest things I’ve learned. And I learned it from a lot of different people. And I’ve been in business for a long time. Rob, you have too and you’ve come across so many different types of people and leaders. And I remember, as a young person in my career seen some leaders that were really hard-nosed and really tough. And I remember thinking to myself, “I can never do that. That’s not how I’m wired, that’s not how I think and that’s not what’s important to me.” But I did realize over time, after interacting with so many other people, you don’t have to be like that to be a leader. And actually, in today’s environment, it really is not as effective as being empathetic. And so, I think about so many of my peers and I belong to different peer groups, and my industry, and outside my industry, and all of the best leaders that I admire are the ones that are just great people. I mean, like yourself, Rob. I mean, you and I’ve been friends for a while and you’re such a great person, so positive to be around. That’s who I want to be around. I want to be with people like you and others that are just positive, optimistic, really show a genuine level of care. And it’s not just for some end result, it’s really genuine. 

Rob Shallenberger: I’m just going to add a thought to that, Mike, what a great insight. When we help people develop their personal vision during a seminar, whatever it might be. One of the questions that we ask prior to the vision is, “Think about the mentors or influences in your life, who’ve had a significant impact for good. And what were the traits and characteristics that you admired about that person?” And I didn’t connect the dots until I was just listening to you just now, that probably the most common response to that question, when people think about who really influenced them for good was that that person cared about them and listened to them. In other words, they really were empathetic towards them. And I think you’re right. As you look at 2020, in all of us, it’s created a higher level of empathy for others because we’ve experienced things that we, most of us haven’t experienced yet, in our lives and it’s really created that empathy. And I agree with you. If you look at truly great leaders, they’re not the ones that are right in people’s faces hard-nosed, it’s the people who are empathetic. We can still get the job done, we can still have and expect high results, we still create that culture of excellence that you’re referring to and still be empathetic.  

Mike Choutka: Absolutely.  

Rob Shallenberger: They’re not mutually exclusive. Right? 

Mike Choutka: Absolutely. 

Rob Shallenberger: So, here’s one final question – I can’t believe we’ve been going for 25 minutes already. If you had your three kids in a room, and you could give them one piece of advice, they’re like “Dad, share with us one piece of advice for our life.” And this is probably one of those questions – for our listeners, we didn’t discuss this beforehand – so this is probably one of those questions we’ll go back to later and say, “Man, I could have answered that so many different ways.” But regardless, if you had your kids in a room, and you could share with them one piece of advice, what would that be for them? 

Mike Choutka: What comes to mind, Rob, when you ask that is, I kind of think back to my life, obviously, and think about some of the pivotal points in it. And I would tell my kids, that when you start your career, all of us are so gung ho, and you just want to go out there and prove yourself. And so, you have your laser-focused on what it’s going to take to achieve success. And whatever your definition of success is, it is what a lot of us get laser-focused on. And for me, I knew maybe I wasn’t the smartest or the most talented, or maybe had all the skills that other people had, but I knew I could outwork anybody. And so, I just put my head down, and I just worked and put in just unbelievable hours, nights, weekends, holidays, it just didn’t matter. And when I look back at that, I would tell my kids that I don’t know that that was the best approach. And I think that it took me a while to sort of coming to the realization that, “Yeah, I could put in more hours than everybody else and probably outwork them, but there were more elements in my life that were more important than that.” And I would tell my kids to focus on their families, take care of themselves, eat right, get sleep, exercise, and basically lead a well-balanced life. And being more well-rounded is more important than just a singular focus of, say, that career that you’re trying to achieve. And what I learned, Rob, as you and I talked, and you’ve taught me the roles and goals – what I’ve learned is when you’re more well rounded, and you’re focused on a holistic approach, you’re way more productive. And so, I would tell my kids that because it took me a long time to learn that, and then you helped me refine it, actually, when we had a chance to talk about vision, roles, and goals, and pre-week planning. I would tell my kids that when they’re getting out of college and not wait until they’re in their 30s – like I was – to figure that out. I think that would be the biggest message I can give to them. 

Rob Shallenberger: Man, you know what? That is so interesting, that would be in my top three as well. What you just shared would definitely be in my top three as well. And it’s been interesting, Mike, most of our listeners know that we’re releasing a book this coming April, early May called Do What Matters Most. And Mike has actually been very instrumental in being one of our proofreaders. We removed an entire chapter based upon Mike’s feedback and suggestions, so that’s how much I value his inputs and his opinions. And it’s interesting, as you talk about, and you bring up these do what matters most habits of vision, goals, pre-week planning, we found in our research, Mike, to support what you just said that a person who has a significant personal issue going on in their life – in other words, they’re out of balance somewhere – whether it’s a relationship with a son or daughter or a spouse, the health isn’t so hot, emotional, mental well-being whatever it is, a person that has any significant place where they’re out of balance is 40% less productive in the workplace. And by reverse logic, if we make that a positive, a person who has a balance of success stories across the many areas of their life, will by default, then, be 40% more productive in the workplace. And so, I agree with you 100%, to look at our roles and goals, what matters most in each role, and then pre-week planning being the habit that takes it down to the weekly and daily level, it’s amazing the impact that will have on our personal productivity and well-being. And to your point, Mike, it’s been interesting how many people have said what you’ve said, is that they look back at their careers, and it’s not working harder, it’s working harder in the right way. Being more focused on delivering excellence as a leader on certain projects, getting it done, and yet still taking care of a person’s health, mental well-being, and relationships with their family. And that will contribute to a much better leader over the course of a long term. And so, what a great thought. Well, Mike, we are at our 30-minute mark. I cannot believe that. Awesome insights, great thoughts. Any final comments for our listeners, before we wrap up? 

Mike Choutka: I think the only thing I would say, as challenging as 2020 has been for all of us, I’m really optimistic about 2021. I can’t wait for it to get here, I think it’s going to be great and I think it’ll be what we make it. And so, let’s go make it great, let’s carry the message forward and see what we can accomplish. And Rob, it’s been a real pleasure. Thank you for this. 

Rob Shallenberger: Well, thank you, I hope – and I’ll just make one observation as a compliment to Mike – I hope that you’ve caught in Mike something that I’ve noticed years ago, and it’s why he’s in the position he’s in – one of the many reasons – and it’s a great trait or characteristic for any of us to adopt going into 2021 and really for the rest of our lives. In 2020 a lot of us wear dealt a lemon to a degree and what Mike has been saying this entire time is let’s make lemonade. Let’s figure out a way to control what we can control, let’s focus on fortifying areas that we need to fortify, let’s start building momentum in the different areas of our life and let’s focus on what we can control and what a great example of what a leader does. And so, Mike, it’s been a privilege as always to talk with you. I’m always inspired every time we talk and I really appreciate you taking the time to come on this podcast. I know it’s been great for other people to hear your perspectives and insights and see the attributes of what a great leader looks like. So, to all of our listeners, thank you for being here, we appreciate Mike for taking the time to come on here and all that they’re doing at Hensel Phelps, and we appreciate you. So, between now and the next podcast we hope you have a great day and a wonderful rest of your week.

Rob Shallenberger

CEO, Becoming Your Best

Leading authority on leadership and execution, F-16 Fighter Pilot, and father

Micheal J. Choutka

CEO, Helsel Phelps

President & Chief Executive Officer of Hensel Phelps

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